There is a brief section in our Presbyterian Book of Order that speaks of the
"Faith of the Reformed Tradition." In that section are listed some of the great
themes of our Reformation faith. The first of these is "The election of the
people of God for service as well as salvation" [G-2.0500].
I am particularly pleased with this way of putting the matter. In the church in
which I grew up I can remember a lot being said about salvation, but I cannot
remember a lot being said about service. I am sure that service was implied, but
the words that were spoken tended to give the impression that being a Christian
was all about getting saved. God's election or choosing or calling of us was all
about us! It was all about us getting right with God. And if anything much was
said about service, it was almost an afterthought.
I am relying, of course, on the memories of my youth. It might not have been
that way at all. But I know there is a tendency within Christianity to think of
election as a matter of being saved. The "elect" are special, because God has
chosen to save them.
I don't know if this kind of language even means very much to most of us
today. When is that last time you told somebody that you are one of the elect,
or that you have been saved? It has probably been a while. On the other hand,
the mentality of salvation is still very much with us today. This is the mentality
that Christianity is something for us. It is to serve our ends, or to secure our
end! It is the instrument of God's blessing upon us who are here. In the more
evangelical traditions, the word is that Jesus Christ has died for us. In the more
the reticent traditions, the word is that the Church is there for us. Both, I
believe, are true, but there is a larger truth that often seems to get second
billing. Whatever God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ and the Church, it
is not just for us, or even primarily for us: it is for the world. We are called not
merely for our own sakes but also to be in service to the world.
There is a little gem of a movie in town right now called "The Cider House
Rules." It is based on the first part of the novel by John Irving. In the story, a
Dr. Wilbur Larch presides over a home for orphaned children in a mythical
place called St. Cloud's, Maine. Dr. Larch, however, also performs illegal
abortions for the women who come to him not wanting to give birth to their
children. One of the children who is born and left at St. Cloud's is named
Homer Wells. After two failed attempts at adoption, Homer becomes a favorite
of Dr. Larch. As he grows up in the orphanage, he becomes an apprentice to
the good doctor. Throughout the story Dr. Larch reminds him of the
importance of being of use. Homer refuses to perform any abortions, but in
every other way he proves to be of use to Dr. Larch and all the other children in
Despite its subject matter, there is a quaintness about the movie and about
Homer and Dr. Larch. We don't hear very much these days about people being
of use. Growing up I can remember hearing the phrase, "make yourself useful,"
but I cannot remember when I last heard that. In "The Cider House Rules," Dr.
Larch has a clear sense of calling. It is not a calling without costs, in personal
as well as professional terms. He lives a life in relative obscurity, yet in danger
of being exposed. But his life has a purpose that has its rewards. He is there to
be of help to the young women who come to him in some of the most difficult
of circumstances, and he is there to care for the young children whom many of
them leave behind. And he serves them well. Eventually, that sense of calling
is transmitted to Homer Wells as well.
To be of use, to be of service, is an integral part of what it means to be called
by God. Contemporary observers of the churches in the United States point to
what they describe as a widespread "consumer mentality" that appears to have
grown in recent decades. People now look for churches, shop for churches,
pass judgment on churches, based on how well those churches seem prepared
to meet their needs. Churches are seen to exist to perform a service, but that
service is understood to be primarily for the members, not for the larger
community or the world. Churches are also appreciated when they are seen to
be in service to the larger community, but again, it is the community of which
the members are a part. The idea that perhaps the Church does not exist
primarily for its own members but rather for those who are not its members
seems strange indeed.
I am not trying to suggest that a church has no obligation toward its own, or
that God does not really care about us for our own sake but only for the sake of
others whom we are called to serve. But I am trying to suggest that unless we
understand our calling to be for the sake of something else, we really have not
grasped the heart of what is means to be a people of God.
If you review all the major call stories in the Bible, they all entail a major
change in the lives of those who are called. God calls Abram to leave his
kindred and his home country and to journey to a strange land, where he will
become the progenitor of a great people. Abram goes, but it is not like his ship
has finally come in [Genesis 12].. God calls Moses out in the desert to become
the deliverer of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. Moses protests, "Why me?" but
God assures him, saying, "I will be with you" [Exodus 3:12]. Jeremiah
wonders about God's call. After all, he is only a youth [Jeremiah 1:6]. Isaiah
recognizes the awesome responsibility that is being laid upon him, and so he
cries, "Woe is me!" [Isaiah 6:5]. And when Jesus calls the first of his disciples,
he tells them right up front that instead of being fishers of fish they will become
fishers of people [Mark 1:16]. In our call to worship this morning, the prophet
declares that the people of God themselves are called to be "a covenant to [all]
the people, a light to the nations" [Isaiah 42:6]. God's calling is not like the
Publisher's Central Clearing House agent showing up on your front door with a
million dollar prize. God' calling is always for the sake of others, for the sake
of the world.
Understanding this should make us wonder why anyone would jump at the
chance to be a Christian. I know, in our Gospel text, Mark says that after Jesus
called Simon and Andrew and then James and John, "immediately they left their
nets and followed him" [1:18]. But that is just Mark's way of telling the story,
without much discussion. Just the events as they happen. It isn't long before
Jesus and his new disciples go to Capernaum and his home region, including a
visit to the house of Simon and Andrew, where Simon's mother-in-law is in bed
with a fever. After healing her, many others are brought to him for healing.
But does he put out a shingle and start up a practice there? No, he tells his
disciples that he must go on to neighboring towns so that he can "proclaim the
message there also" [1:38]. As we gradually come to see, his ministry is not
just to his disciples and their families, not just to his hometown or his home
region, but to an ever-widening circle that now encompasses the globe. A
parochial Christianity is at odds with the ministry of Jesus and his disciples.
Jesus does not call his disciples merely to serve their own friends and neighbors,
but to embrace the whole of humankind.
If we reflect on the idea of being called, we will recognize that a call is different
from an urge or an impulse or an instinct that comes from within. A call comes
from beyond. It comes from another. It is never the sheer fulfillment of our
heart's desire. It is always a word, an invitation, a challenge, a command, that
reaches out to us and beckons us on. To be called is to be claimed, summoned,
enlisted, for service.
At the same time, however, there are many needs that exist in the world. We
can hardly respond to them all. We do not feel equally called to service by them
all. A few Sundays ago I mentioned Parker Palmer's definition of vocation or
calling: where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need. What this
suggests is that the call from beyond must be met by some yearning from
within. The call that we actually hear, the call that we recognize as a personal
invitation or summons, is the call that connects with something deep within our
very being. God's does not call us to be who we are not, or to do what we
cannot do. God may call us to do what at first we do not think we can do--like
Moses or Jeremiah--but then we need to allow for the possibility that God will
also grant the assurance and resources necessary to fulfill that calling. God's
call may not be convenient or comfortable or even welcomed, but if it is
genuine it will somehow tap into the depths and draw out from us the best that
we have to give. And in such giving joy and gladness are to be found.
The philosopher Charles Hartshorne once wrote an essay in which he observed
that we do not so much value others for their usefulness to ourselves as we
value ourselves for our usefulness to others ["Beyond Enlightened Self-Interest," in ETHICS, p. 205]. The life that is worth living is the life that is
worth something! It is the life that contributes, that makes a difference, that is
of use and service. There is a danger here, that if we cannot be doing
something we think we are worthless. Our worth, however, not just to God but
to others, goes well beyond our doing. It is a matter of who we are, and how
we are. It is a matter of our being with and for others. So long as we do not
reduce the value of human life to an instrumental value, to sheer usefulness, this
is a profound insight. Our value to ourselves depends on our value to others
and to the world around us. There is no way to measure this value in monetary
terms. There is no way to measure it in terms of status or position or power.
There is no way to measure it in terms of identifiable accomplishment. This is
simply the recognition that we do not live to ourselves, and that if we try to do
so, we can only fail. Those who seek to save their lives, to gain only for
themselves, to secure only their own salvation, will ultimately lose their lives
and all the world as well.
God calls us for service as well as salvation. For some people, the path of service seems to fall right in line with the path of joy and gladness. But for most of us, a reluctance, a hesitation, even a sense of inadequacy, may be a good sign in response to God's call. It is not a privilege so much as a responsibility to be called by God. It can be an awesome burden, and there is good reason why many who have sensed God's call have run in the opposite direction. It may require a tremendous change in our lives, a re-orientation, a new path. But when we are truly engaged in our calling, we may hope to be blessed with the glorious experience of making ourselves useful in the broadest of terms, of being of service in ways most essential, and in that is our salvation. AMEN.