Called By Name
Bible Text: John 1:29-42 | Preacher: Reverend Dr. Katie Snipes Lancaster
“Jesus said to them, ‘Come and see.’ And they came and saw.”
You might not like me saying this, and it feels a bit like a confession, but here’s the truth: I’m a Colts fan. For me, football has become a way to connect with family, and to nostalgically love my home city of Indianapolis. So, while this is likely unwelcome news here in the land of the bears, I hope that with the Broncos/Patriots game just hours away, and a Colts loss last weekend, maybe we can reconcile our differences until next fall when the season starts anew.
With that in mind, here is the story I want us to lean into today: in the wildcard game between the Colts and the Chiefs two weeks ago now, Andrew Luck made a superhero touchdown that possibly reframed his entire career. Maybe you saw it. Trailing 41-31 in the fourth quarter, Luck hands the ball off to Donald Brown, only to have Brown fumble the ball. Then, quickly, Luck scoops up the ball before the Chiefs could recover, and he dives ahead for the touchdown.
The touchdown turned the tide. The game moved back in the direction of the Colts, and they won, though not without their fair share of second-by-second struggle. If the Colts had lost to the Chiefs on January 4, it’s likely that Luck’s narrative, his football narrative could have been hash tagged, “#playoffsfailure”. Yes, they lost to the Patriots last week, but this one touchdown, leading to a win, had the power to change the conversation. He isn’t taking his team to the Super Bowl this year, but he is labeled a leader, moving play by play into what can still be called a dignified football future.
Football, like most things in life, is about narrative; framing one man’s career, story again and again, crafting an athlete into a legend. The sport might be interesting in and of itself, but the storyline is what keeps fans coming back. Ultimately, narrative overpowers all – regardless of statistics, injuries, physical prowess, sophisticated play-calling and straight up football intelligence.
Our narratives are important, whether in football or business, college entrance essays or obituaries, family origin stories or bible stories. Narrative and storytelling is as critical to our identity as is the very living of our lives. And, often, as the storytellers of our own lives, we are able to shape and frame just how each event and circumstance is woven into the fabric of our lives.
For example, I read an obituary in the Economist not too long ago for a man named Delbert Tibbs who, many years ago, was convicted of a crime that he didn’t commit and was sentenced, not just to life in prison, but he was sentenced to death. While family and friends on the outside were pleading for his release, he sat in jail for 3 years on death row, spending every night not far from the room where the electric chair sat. Waiting, every day not knowing if he would be released or would say his final goodbyes, he was finally released after Joan Baez and Pete Seeger joined with his family to plead his case.
Delbert Tibbs took his own story, and reclaimed it as his own. While he could have spent his life being resentful, angry at the state of Florida for holding him in prison for three years, instead, Delbert was not bitter. Instead, he took his life story, and reshaped it, spent time writing poetry, and took up work with the “Witness to Innocence” project, an organization of death row survivors who work to defend innocent prisoners. He took his story, his narrative, and restored order in his life by giving back and helping others.[i]
That is exactly what Walt Disney says to P L Travers in the film “Saving Mr. Banks.” “That’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”
My hope for us, here at Kenilworth Union Church, is that here in this place, we too, are able to do just that, be the storytellers of our own lives, restoring order by weaving our own story in with God’s story, instilling hope again and again and again by looking at the world through the lens of faith.
Today’s worship service was built around a theme. Maybe you heard it echoed in the call to worship, or the responsive reading. “God calls us by name.” “We call out to God.” Maybe you heard it in the choir anthem. When God asks “Who can I send?” we are called to respond “Here I am, Lord.” Maybe you heard it in the prayer of affirmation. God calls us together, God knits us together, and even when we come unraveled, God recreates us anew. And in return, we affirm God’s presence in our own lives.
At first glance, the theme of God’s call is all over today’s scripture passages. In the passage that Don read from the book of Isaiah, the second verse reads, “You called me before I was born.” In the gospel reading, it is John the Baptist who is affirming Jesus’ call, excited and proclaiming, “This is the one, he is the one God has called.” Then, Jesus calls his disciples with three simple words, “come and see.”
I, too, identify with this open-ended call to “come and see.” For me, my sense of call was formed in high school in late post-youth group conversations in the church parking lot, or in college in long hours reading Augustine and Paul Tillich and Martin Luther King, Jr. My sense of call was forged in travel to Mexico and rural Oklahoma, in opportunities to serve in downtown Seattle and Atlanta, in the chance to accompany a friend at the hospital or to tell my faith story to the class of ninth graders who were confirmed in 1999. My call story continues, here at Kenilworth Union Church, where youth and church leaders came forward to pray over me last week, laying hands on my shoulders, connecting me to God and to this community in a deeply powerful way.
But, my call was also forged in the invitation to “come and see” – for me to “come and see” what seminary was all about at a campus visit, or to “come and see” what ministry was like at a summer internship, and my call is still being forged in a daily open invitation to “come and see” how God might lead me, lead us, together, in this community.
So often in the church, we pastors co-opt this word ‘vocation’ and the language of ‘calling’ and use it as a word that relates specifically to a call to ministry. But in reality, each of us has a story of God’s call, God nudging us in one direction, towards a particular career, towards a friendship, towards a community, towards a way of living.
As one writer said, “Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to be something I am not. [No, vocation] comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”[ii] We are called by God. We are called by name. Theologian Frederich Buechner would say it this way, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deepest gladness and the world’s deepest hunger meet.”[iii] We are called by God. We are called by name. Poet Mary Oliver would put it in the form of a question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”[iv] We are called by God. We are called by name.
In scripture, we know that Samuel, in the middle of the night, heard God call him by name. Moses protested vehemently as God called him at the burning bush. Mary stood in amazement, humbled, as God called her to bear light in the world. In the civil rights movement which we will celebrate tomorrow, we remember that Rosa Parks followed God’s call, standing at the front of the bus, and Martin Luther King, Junior heard God’s call to preach racial reconciliation and to lead change.
Sometimes, we are called to lead and succeed in ways that are public and visible, and other times, our call is much more private, yet no less brave or powerful or life-altering – a sister called to care for a brother, a mother called to make a life or death choice for her daughter, a call to teach your children how to give thanks and give back, a simple call to be attentive to the small joys in life.
We are called individually, and we are called as a community. In this season of Epiphany, we hear again that our larger, joint vocation as Christians, as community, is to “arise, shine” like a light to all the nations.[v]
I have been reading the history of Kenilworth Union Church these days, and am informally collecting the stories of KUC, particularly as they relate to the long history of Children and Youth ministries here. One thing I came across, which speaks both to claiming our own story, and to hearing God’s call, was the booklet from the 50th anniversary of Kenilworth Union Church. In that booklet, Rev. Littlefair and Rev. Willet wrote about their sense of this church – how it has shaped them, and how they see it shaping the community. They write,
”Kenilworth Union Church is a church adequate for the task, the church of the warm heart, of the open mind, of the adventurous spirit, the church that cares, that helps ‘hurt’ lives, that comforts older people and challenges youth, that knows no frontiers, geographical or social; the church that inquires as well as avers, that looks forward as well as backward, the high church, the broad church, the low church, high as the ideals of Jesus, broad as the love of God, low as the humblest human, a working church, a worshiping church, a winsome church; a church that interprets the truth in terms of its own times and a church that interprets its own times in terms of the truth, that inspires courage for this life and hope for the life to come, the church of the living God.”[vi]
I read this today, here in a different time, in a different century, in a different millennia, because I find that it still rings true today. We are called, both together as a community, and individually, in our own lives.
In conversations this month about the history and spirit of KUC, one thing that has come up over and over again is that at KUC, people are united by a commonality, a common call, often expressed in service, and that while service often happens together here within the walls of this church, or even together in service in the city and around the globe, this, too, is a place where families and individuals seek ways to quietly serve God in their lives. There is a shared commonality at KUC that fosters a hope for living differently – living in such a way that loves God and neighbor.
As you think of your own call, as you consider your own story, my hope is that you can be the storyteller of your own life, confidently weaving the story of God’s love into the very fabric of your being. God lives in us and through us, and calls us to hear the ancient stories of faith as a way to reframe, to re-story, to reclaim our own sense of the divine working in our lives.
As you seek to reclaim your own story, and name your call, I will close with this reminder of our common call to love and serve God, a poem by the 16th century Spanish mystic, Teresa of Avila:
“Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, yours are the eyes through which to look out, Christ’s compassion to the world; yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good; yours are the hands with which he is to bless each person now.”[vii]
Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Economist, December 21, 2013.
[ii] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak (2000).
[iii] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seekers ABCs (1993)
[iv] Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems (1992). From “The summer day.”
[v] Isaiah 60
[vi] Campbell, Sally R. (1992). I Thank My God Upon Every Remembrance: The Kenilworth Union Church, 1892-1992.
[vii] Howell, James C. (2009). Introducing Christianity: Exploring the Bible, Faith, and Life.