“Called”

            Thirty years ago this week I was in fifth grade. We were watching live TV in our homeroom class. “And… lift off!” the announcer sang out. “Lift off of the twenty-fifth space shuttle mission.” The cameras clicked and the crowds cheered. We watched as the Challenger hurtled into the dark blue sky. And then, an explosion, followed by a long silence, as smoke billowed and twisted across the screen. Finally a strangely calm voice broke in: “Flight controllers here looking carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.”

All the focus in our school that day was on Christa McAuliffe, who was to be the first teacher in space. It wasn’t until very recently that I learned about Ronald McNair, one of the other astronauts who died in the Challenger disaster. The children’s book Ron’s Big Mission tells the story of nine-year-old Ron growing up in segregated South Carolina in the 1950s. In Ron’s community, black children were not allowed to check out books from the library, so Ron went there daily, to read eagerly about airplanes and flight. He dreamt of becoming a pilot some day. One morning, Ron left his house with a plan in mind. Nothing could sway him from getting to the library the minute it opened—not even the grocer’s offer of a donut, or a game of basketball with his friend Carl. Arriving at the library, Ron chose some books and then walked right up to the counter to check them out. A kind white lady offered to check the books out for Ron, but Ron was determined to do it himself. “I’d like to check out these books,” he said to the desk clerk. When she ignored him, he climbed up and stood on the counter, repeating his request in a quiet, firm voice. “I’d like to check out these books.”

            “Call” is a foundational Christian concept. We say that in the waters of baptism, the spirit anoints us and calls us to ministry—each one of us. And yet, call is a also a great mystery, provoking many questions. Does God have specific purposes in mind for your life or mine, or does God simply want us to live purposeful, meaningful lives? Is our call something difficult and extraordinary, or might we be answering God’s call in the simple things we do each day? Is call individual, or communal? I tend to think the answer to all these questions might be “yes,” depending on who is asking and in what circumstances. However, I do see a common dynamic in the stories of call I know. Call is about living and speaking truthfully, with integrity. Or, to dress it up in biblical language: prophetically. In demanding a library card, Ron honored a truth about himself: that he was made to learn and grow, born to fly. And he also confronted an profound untruth—the lie of white supremacy.

            How do we know where and when and how God is calling us? The stories of biblical prophets suggest that one indication of a call from God is resistance. Jeremiah, like many prophets before and after him, responded to God’s call by naming his own inadequacies. “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” When you are tempted to say, “but I’m only…” then God might be calling you. God doesn’t just use our capacities, our talents, and our resources.

God turns our inadequacies into qualifications, our failures into wisdom, our pain into a source of healing, our weakness into an opportunity for the divine to be at work.

Old Testament Professor Anathea Portier-Young says that the verb describing God’s touch to Jeremiah’s lips can also mean “strike” or “harm.” In other words, she writes:

When we picture the hand of God “touching” Jeremiah’s mouth,” rather than envisioning a gentle or comforting contact, we might do better to imagine a jolt or a shock. We would be justified in asking whether it hurt, whether it left a wound or a scar, whether having God’s words placed in his mouth changed Jeremiah forever.[1]

God’s touch is abrasive because that’s how truth—the full truth—is.

 

And those whom God touches become less afraid of such honesty, more welcoming of its cleansing presence. Though God’s touch is abrasive, it is also healing. “Do not be afraid of them,” God assures Jeremiah, “for I am with you to deliver you.” God’s call is that which delivers us into life with integrity.

That day in the library, when the staff realized Ron was not going to get down off the counter, they called the police. The police urged Ron to let someone else (a white person) check the books out for him. He refused. So they called Ron’s mother, who told him he had to follow the rules. “I can’t, Momma,” Ron told her. “It’s wrong. The rules are not fair. Why can’t I check out books like everyone else?” No one said anything—not the desk clerk, not Mrs. Scott [the librarian], not the policemen, not even Ron’s mother. Mrs. Scott looked at Ron. She thought about all the times that Ron came into the library and all the times he sat at the tables for hours looking over so many books. He was her best customer—and she knew what she had to do. Mrs. Scott walked back into her office and started writing. Ron wondered what she was doing. Mrs. Scott returned and handed Ron a library card. His library card. Ron looked at Mrs. Scott and smiled. As he jumped to the floor, he thought he saw her smile, too. “I’d like to check out these books, please,” he said, handing the card to the desk clerk.’[2]

We’re all called. But the truth is, we’re not all called to be Prophets with a capital “P,” Prophets in the way that Moses and Jeremiah and Jesus were Prophets. Not all of us are called to march on the front lines of change, like Ron McNair and slam poet Amal Kassir and teen climate activists. Ron McNair took on the role of prophet, as he quietly took his stand on top of the counter at the library. But Ron could not make change by himself. He needed a prophetic community, a community of followers. He particularly needed those in power to leave behind their fears and doubts, their comfort and complacency, and to climb up there with him onto the high moral ground. He needed Mrs. Scott to write up that library card and the police to stand by and let it happen, and his mother to allow him to stay up there on the counter, despite the danger.

Jesus’ sermon in his hometown of Nazareth is a parable about what it means to be a prophetic community. Jesus’ message to those in the synagogue that day is simple. God’s scope of concern is always larger than ours. The crowd was happy with Jesus’ message as long as they believed his “gracious words” were just for them. But Jesus pushed them. He said he couldn’t do in Nazareth what he did in the Gentile (that is, non-Jewish) city of Capernaum. He couldn’t liberate, heal, and offer good news to his own people unless they learned to see that their wholeness was bound up with that of their neighbors—all of their neighbors. It always had been. That’s why Elijah and Elisha, two of Israel’s most powerful prophets, were sent to foreign lands to feed a widow and cure a leper. Our vision is too small. Our love is too limited. Our imagination is not expansive or inclusive enough. Prophetic communities are willing to hear this truth, and to be called again and again by it to new ways of being.

In “My Grandmother’s Farm,” eighteen-year-old Syrian-American poet, Amal Kassir, speaks as a prophet and calls us to be a prophetic community. She urges Syria and the world to recognize the inauthentic nature of tyranny, and the truth of our common rootedness in the earth that feeds us and buries us all. She imagines a conversation between the tyrant and the soil of Syria.

And when the soil asks him:

“Did you not spill blood in my name?

Then why do you fear me so?

Let these maggots give your body back to me,

Loyalist.

And Bashar al-Assad will not know

How to respond.

He doesn’t speak the language of this country.

He will struggle

Against the dirt

That fed him.[3]

 

 

 

The farmers, on the other hand, like her grandmother, are the ones who know the truth of what Syria needs, what the world needs. They are the ones able to imagine a day when their barren farms will once again produce food, when people will cook and feast again with the fruits of the land. “They will rebuild this country with a prayer, with a meal, with blistered hands, and enough food to feed the neighbors.”

In “Holy the Firm,” poet Annie Dillard quotes Psalm 24, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?

or who shall stand in his holy place?” And then she answers the Psalmist’s question with these words: “There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us…. There is no one but us. There never has been.”

We are called, my friends. There is no one but us. Amen.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=497

 

[2] Blue, R. and Naden, C.J.  (2009).  Ron’s Big Mission.  New York, NY: Scholastic Inc.

[3] Kassir, Amal. My Grandmother’s Farm. Westword. n. d. Web. Sept. 23, 2014