The Gracious Word
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 5:1-11
Growing up, I’m sure it comes as no surprise to you that I was – consistently – the smallest kid in my class. I was born with a birth defect that affected my eyes so, until I underwent surgery at age 3, my parents were very cautious about letting me play outdoors or in any rambunctious fashion. That probably had some affect on the development of my motor skills. So, from my earliest days of school, I remember recess and gym as being particularly painful. I was nearly always the last kid picked for the team and my presence was considered a liability by my teammates. I could never connect with a ball – of any size, using my hands, feet or a bat. So, I became enormously self-conscious with regards to any and all sports.
Now fast forward to my mid-twenties. My dad and I were part of a group of church folks who were touring a conference church camp. They had just installed a ropes course – something brand new at the time. The director of the camp turned to me and said, “Tracey, would you like to demonstrate the course; you look athletic.” What? The comment caught me off guard and I felt, simultaneously, the old twinge of dread but now mingled with a sense of excitement. Maybe I could do this. Was it possible? In fact, it was. I worked my way through the course with ease; my sense of delight growing with each new obstacle or challenge I completed. Decades earlier an idea had been planted in me by others that I could never do anything requiring physical strength or agility and I had bought in – hook, line and sinker.
I’m sure I’m not unique. We have all received the message – overtly or covertly – that we are lacking in certain skills or abilities. From the time we are children, we are acutely aware of others’ expectations and judgments; of what is socially acceptable and commendable, of where we excel and where we fall short. When our skills are lacking in something that is valued in our wider cultural context, we often develop insecurities that build limits around our lives; psychological barriers that hold us back. And if we are raised in church, we are also acutely aware of what makes for good little girls and boys.
And so it is that early and easily, we develop insecurities and shame around all of the places where we fall short or fail to measure up. Often when we fall short of the expectations of others, we assume that we have also let God down and disappointed our creator who must then – surely – consider us a liability to the team.
In recent weeks we’ve been journeying through this sermon series called The Power of Words. In this morning’s scriptures – from Isaiah and Luke – individuals experience a calling from God. So you might have expected me to title this morning’s message “the Calling Word.” But, I didn’t. Instead I’ve titled this message “the Gracious Word.” And here’s why…
I believe (as scripture affirms) that we are all called and gifted; blessed with a God-given vocation (which may or may not be our career; which may or may not be something we get paid for). And while we may sometimes neglect that call out of selfishness or laziness, I think far more frequently, we neglect that call because we can’t imagine ourselves worthy or capable. We shrink back from the call because we fear our own deficiencies. Now, we might not be prone to cry out that we are unclean or sinful and admonish God to steer clear of us like Peter did with Jesus. But, deeply imbedded in our hearts and minds is the fear that we will fall short; that others will judge our efforts lacking. And surely, we tell ourselves, God will be even more disappointed with us.
Yet, this morning’s bible stories are powerful reminders that every call to serve God – in whatever fashion that might be – begins with grace. The calling word is a gracious word. It begins with God drawing near to us in all of our messiness and shortcomings. God’s goodness and perfection may feel intimidating to us. In each of our bible stories, issues of purity are raised. As I’ve mentioned before, ancient Mediterranean culture was acutely focused on these distinctions between clean and unclean, pure and impure. In the case of Isaiah, that fear of impurity is overcome by direct action, a burning coal purifying or cleansing Isaiah’s lips. In our gospel story, Peter is fearful that his sin will contaminate the holy man, Jesus. But as we see consistently in our gospel stories Jesus reverses the flow so to speak. It is not the sin or uncleanness of others that flows toward Jesus and contaminates him. Rather, the holiness of Jesus flows outward and cleanses and makes pure those around him in order that they might be drawn closer to Jesus both physically and spiritually. That call to draw near is expressed as Jesus proclaims a call over Peter’s life: henceforth he will be catching people – not fish; working hand in hand with Jesus as he makes God’s kingdom come. Notice that Jesus’ words to Peter are really not even an invitation. Jesus doesn’t say, “Simon, I’d like to invite you to consider joining me in the work I’m doing. Take some time and think it over. If you have any questions, shoot me an email.” Rather, Jesus boldly declares Peter’s new vocation: “from now on, you will be catching people.” And so Peter follows… which also reveals an important point. Peter does not merely follow first, learning and developing until he achieves some level of competency. No; the two things occur simultaneously. Discipleship and call – following Jesus and serving Jesus – are not two sequential actions: first one follows and learns and only then can one serve. No; discipleship and call happen simultaneously. Peter follows as a disciple, learning from Jesus yet, from the start he is also engaged in the work of catching people. He is simultaneously learning and catching; answering the call even while learning what it means.
In his book Let Your Life Speak[i], author Parker Palmer talks about vocation and the obstacles that get in the way of our living out God’s call over our lives. He reminds us that when we distrust God’s call, out of fear of our own sinfulness or inadequacies, we actually engage in a kind of functional atheism, believing that ultimate responsibility lies with us and that we are the ones who make things happen. Certainly it’s a little scary and intimidating to do something for which others might judge us to be lacking or insufficient. But in the face of our fears, of our inadequacies and shortcomings, Jesus speaks the reassuring words, “Do not be afraid.”
Friends: contrary to what our culture may communicate, our lives are more than careers or goals to be set and met. We have an identity and vocation given to us by God. That call does not mean we are perfect or that we will never fail. Peter was far from perfect and, when the going got tough, he even denied knowing Jesus. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus knows that Peter will deny him; but he also knows that Peter will repent of that denial. Clearly Jesus doesn’t call Peter because he believes Peter will always get it right and consistently hit it out of the ballpark.
So, if any of us question God’s call because of our personal shortcomings, we ought to consider: could we possibly ever screw things up as often and as badly as Peter did. And yet, Peter plays a foundational role in building the early Church. He grew and learned even from his failures. He didn’t give up; he kept at it.
So again, Palmer reminds us that our lives are about more than our strengths and virtues. We can do more than live within the limited box of our well-established, agreed upon competencies. Our lives and our calls are also about our liabilities and our limits, our trespasses and our shadow selves. We must be ready even to embrace what we dislike or find shameful about ourselves. For our God-given call is not dependent upon our measuring up; it is more a matter of our willingness to move beyond our fears and follow wherever Jesus leads us. God’s “calling word” is not like a job interview in which we “pad our resumes” and strive to prove ourselves more worthy than the other applicants. God’s “calling word” is – first and foremost – a gracious word that invites us to leave our fears behind and step into the new identity and vocation God declares over us: “From now on you will be catching people,” Jesus tells Peter.
From now on… From now on; who is God calling you to be as you follow him and join with him in serving. You are never too young or too old, too rich or too poor, too weak or too powerful. God needs us all to join in the work of building his kingdom and of spreading his love and grace.
As I’ve mentioned in recent weeks, we are currently in the season of Epiphany; a word that means a sudden revelation or realization. It may be an epiphany for you to consider that God’s grace not only saves us from sin; it pronounces over us a new vocation, a call to serve. I pray that this morning might be an epiphany for you; a sudden realization that God has a call for you irrespective of your shortcomings. Your life belongs to God. The God who knows you and loves you is calling you.
Rowan Williams writes: “to say that we believe in Jesus is the equivalent of saying that… Jesus is… the one to whom we belong. [And] to know ourselves as those who belong to Jesus is the beginning of a right understanding of discipleship.” (p 337)
Friends: I hope this morning’s story helps you to recognize that God doesn’t just call “holy professionals”… whatever that might mean. But God calls all of us and that call may come in church, in a holy time and space like it did for Isaiah; or it might come to us in the midst of our regular daily routine and activities as it did with Peter. He was just finishing up his shift, so to speak. Furthermore, Peter was likely staring down at the biggest catch of his fisherman’s life. Yet when he heard the call, he just walked away from his catch to follow Jesus. Now, we aren’t all called to quit our day jobs. But we are all called to trust that the calling word always begins with grace. The calling word is a gracious word.
[i] Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer; Jossey-Bass; 2000
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