Proper 9A, 2014, Discernment

Proper 9, 2014, St. Clement’s 

Several years ago now, I had the opportunity to see an off-Broadway production of the musical “Avenue Q”.  To give you a sense of this satiric musical (one which riffs broadly on Sesame Street) I offer the names of a few choice musical numbers: "What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?", "Purpose" , "There Is Life Outside Your Apartment", and "I Wish I Could Go Back to College".

At the time, I was a relatively recent college graduate with a B.A. in English and Religion and I resonated with the words of the protagonist of Avenue Q:

“What do you do with a B.A. in English,
What is my life going to be?
Four years of college and plenty of knowledge,
Have earned me this useless degree.

I can't pay the bills yet,
'Cause I have no skills yet,
The world is a big scary place.

But somehow I can't shake,
The feeling I might make,
A difference,
To the human race.”

Now, whilst I must agree to disagree with the notion that a B.A. in English is useless, my grand, post-college, plan was “I want to help people” juxtaposed with “I really like church”.  

I’m sure I gave my college’s “Career Development Office” a lot to work with...    

Which brings me here, last Sunday we had the opportunity to welcome Dan Shoemake, our seminarian, as a newly ordained transitional deacon.  Dan spoke about being “called” to ministry--and after the service I was asked by a congregant about this phrase “being called”.  He asked, and I’m paraphrasing here, if sometimes a calling just feels like a chore.  

Those exploring holy orders with the church are taught very early on that holy orders are something to which you are called by God.  That what we are doing is “vocational discernment” and it is our role to be open to where God might be calling us to use our gifts.  I remember being chastised by a clergy woman with whom I served for referring to my role in the congregation as a “job”.  It’s not a job, because you are not hired, you are not an employee.  You are called, this is your calling.  

But, what on earth does that mean?  Does it mean that we spend our time in some beatific light?  That choirs of angels conduct the melodies that get stuck in our heads?  Ummm, no.  Sometimes a calling involves the tedious or the unpleasant or the burdensome.  But, the difference therein is that the tedious, unpleasant or burdensome become part of something beyond ourselves--the burdensome things become things given meaning by the larger context of seeking to serve God.

However, discernment and vocation and calling are not exclusive concerns of those seeking holy orders.  By virtue of our baptism, we are all called into a life of seeking, serving and proclaiming.  In our baptism we make the promise that we will follow Christ.  Discernment is the act of listening for Christ’s call and vocation then becomes the work we do to go where Christ leads us.      

This is a community in the midst of intentional discernment as we prepare to work with the results of the Mission Assessment Process and support the on-going work of the transition team.  A body of Christ, the church, exploring vocation--the work to which we are called by God.  And if God calls, we are called to respond.

At this point in the process of call and response, we are trying to figure out how each of our activities makes manifest God’s love in the world; if the actions we take are the best way to do this; and what actions we might be called to in the future that will further manifest the work of God in the world.  

When the Mission Assessment Process team presented, they did so with a reference to theologian Frederick Buechner who wrote:

“The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you've presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you've missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you're bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren't helping your patients much either.

Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.”

Deep gladness aligning with deep hunger--in today’s Gospel we might find the good news of this calling in that place where our burden feels light and our yoke easy.  It is the place in which we hear the challenge to participate in that which is hard while at the same time being open to the truth that we have been given joy and grace which are cause for rejoicing.  “Neither hair shirt nor the soft berth.”  

But, how do we discern?  How do we figure out what we are called to as a community?  

The Ignatian approach to this question is one grounded in the sense that God calls and we respond with service.  And, in figuring out what our response is to be we are asked to look at the decision prayerfully.  We can see this modeled by the servant in Genesis today--who approached his task and decision with prayer.  

And, then we give ourselves time to make a decision, being patient and trusting that ultimately we will end up in the right place if we do the best we can.  We consult those we trust and consider all of the data we can obtain.   I like to imagine that Rebekah spoke with her family and friends, consulting them and making the decision to leave based on what she knew.  

Ultimately we follow our heart and do what seems right.  Complete certainty is a rare occurrence and if we wait to feel completely certain it’s far too easy to get stuck in in-action.  We act in accord with the “good we want”, trusting that God’s got this.  And, when Rebekah leaps from the camel to meet Isaac she is met by someone who markedly, in a context in which decisions about marriage were largely economic ones, loves her.  

That leap from the camel’s back is a literal leap of faith.  

So, pray, be patient, and do what seems right.  And, when you can’t shake the feeling you might make a difference to the human race--well, think of that as the compulsion to respond to God’s call with more love made manifest in service.    


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