Sermon: “Who Has Called You?”

January 15, 2017: Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Isaiah 49:1-7

It never seems to surprise people that I wasn’t selected for, or even a candidate for, Homecoming King in high school. Perhaps if I’d had this moustache in those days, things might have been different, but alas, we’ll never know.

Instead, my high school experience bore a lot more similarity to what Janis Ian sang in her song, “At Seventeen.” Like her, I was the last to be called when choosing sides for basketball, which was fair enough, given that I’d miss easy lay-ups, even when the coach had set me up for the play, and I never could get the touch… Well, enough of that.

I’ve always had somewhat more than my fair share of arrogance, however, so I had a notion that there was a significant place in the world for me, even if it wasn’t to be found on a basketball court or in the homecoming court. I could not have said at the time that I felt a call from God, even though that seed had been planted. It grew later in my life. All I could really tell you in high school was that I was pretty sure the world was fortunate to have me in it.

I had much to learn.

I had to learn humility, for one thing. The world may be blessed to have me in it, but, well, it’s not that blessed. My positive impact on the world is not so dramatic. Now, I’m convinced that my presence here as your pastor is a call from God, intended for the blessing of all of us here – myself included – as well as for the blessing of those around us. I believe that.


I also know that this church would have a life and a ministry and a purpose and a significant presence in Hilo without me. It can thrive with another pastor. It has before, and some day (a day I pray is a long way into the future), it will again.

Or briefly (am I too late for briefly?), I had to learn that I am not Jesus.

I also had to learn that not everyone shares my arrogance, or for that matter shares a healthy appreciation of their own value. There are people in the world as convinced of their worthlessness as others are convinced of their superiority. Some are weighed down by the pressures of the “isms” – racism, sexism, heterosexism, wealthism, healthism (to add a couple of new words) – those leave some people unable to conceive of a different way to live, accepting of artificial limits on their freedom and achievements, resigned to the oppression they endure.

Some labor beneath burdens heaped on them by family members and “friends,” people who belittle them or insult them, betraying the love they’re supposed to show.

Others, without apparent outside influences, also come to believe that they just aren’t worth while, and nobody may ever know why. It’s tragically hard for them to reshape that belief.

Honestly, I don’t know which has the more negative impact on our society: the gifts twisted by arrogance, or the gifts withheld by those who don’t believe in their value. I don’t know which of these God weeps over more.

Yet we are called.

The poetry of this passage from Isaiah quite marvelously veils the identity of the Servant of God. At times it sounds like the Servant is the prophet himself. There is, after all, the dialogue between Isaiah and God. Then it shifts, so that the Servant might be the entire people of Israel, all the descendants of Jacob. Christians reading this passage since the days of Saint Luke have found Jesus in Isaiah’s words, and in the echos of the Servant they’ve found Christ’s Church, as well.

So, which is it? I mean, we’ve got to pick one of them right?

Well, why choose just one?

What if it’s all of them? What if it is Isaiah, and the nation of Israel, and Jesus, and Christ’s Church?

What if the Servant is us?

What if we’re all called to be a light to the nations so that God’s salvation may reach to the end of the Earth?

If we are, then we’d better get some understanding of call.

There are a couple of things which God’s call is not.

First, God’s call is not the same thing as vocation or career. I’m afraid my pastor colleagues and I contribute to the confusion on that point. We talk about the decision to enter pastoral ministry as “responding to The Call,” which may give the impression that that’s the only kind of call there is. It isn’t.

Working with young people, pastors will often talk about call as it relates to career choice, and given the fact that that’s a big question in an adolescent’s life, it’s a good thing to talk about. But that’s still not all that “call” is about.

Because if call is all about your job, what does that say about people whose career options have been so limited over the centuries, by social group, geographical location, or economic forces? Did God call the vast majority of Hawaiians to the taro fields and the fishing grounds, and a few, the ali’i, to benefit from their labor?

I don’t think so.

And if your call is all about your job, does that mean that God has no use for you after retirement?

The astonishing gifts of the retirees among us, shared so freely with this church and community, is more than enough to show that God has plenty to give us through retirees.

So call does not equal career. It also does not equal circumstance.

There’s a theological movement in American Protestantism called the “Prosperity Gospel.” It asserts that health and wealth are always the blessings of God, so that those who possess them must therefore be virtuous, or especially faithful, or, well, called.

Two Prosperity Gospel preachers are among the seven religious leaders who will participate in the presidential inauguration this week.

The Prosperity Gospel is false. It is foreign, I am sure, to the mind of Christ.

It’s simply obvious that high moral principles and Christ-like behavior do not inevitably lead to wealth. Not even the Calvinist virtue of hard work inevitably leads to wealth – the hardest working people on the planet are farmers trying to make things grow where there’s not enough water, or where there’s so much that they’re clearing away the weeds all the time. Those people aren’t wealthy; they are among the poorest of the poor.

History will tell you that some become wealthy because they create things and work at things and they build things, while others become wealthy because they have been born wealthy. History will tell you that some become wealthy, or become wealthier, or protect their wealth, with sin rather than virtue: fraud, violence, or the simple practice of extracting everything you can get from every transaction. No, my friends, wealth and power are not reliable signs of God’s endorsement.

If you want another example of why the Prosperity Gospel is foreign to the mind of Christ (and even if you don’t), well, I guess we can turn to Christ, who said, “Blessed are the poor.” Jesus Christ: who died with a single tunic in his possession.

No, call is not about career or circumstance. Call is about our place in this moment, bringing all the skills and experiences we’ve had to the needs, questions, and possibilities of the day, guided by the Spirit of God.

Call is both general and specific. We’re called to be a light, says Isaiah, but have you noticed that different lights work better in different settings? A big vapor lamp helps us find our cars in a dark parking lot, but it won’t help you find they place to put the key. That’s why they have these little flashlights that go on keychains. Our light – our call – will change in response to the needs around us over and over again, sometimes illuminating great things, sometimes being that small light on the dashboard tells us it’s time to refill the gas tank, that something needs attention.

Call may come with crystal-clear certainty, or it may come with a far lighter touch.

Like most preachers, I try to tune myself to God’s call. It is not always easy.

At times in my life, I’ve known for sure just what God wanted me to do. Back in college it was, “Go to seminary. Seek ordination in the Church. Oh, and do it now.”

At other times, I’ve yearned for that kind of clarity, and yearned in vain. It’s as if God is saying, perhaps, what you’re doing is fine for now. But if you want to do something else, that could be OK, too. There’s more than one place you can serve these days. I don’t have a particular place for you to be, and as for the work you’re doing, that will do.

Ungrateful wretch that I am, I tend to ignore that sense of God’s appreciation for what I’m doing in the yearning for crystal-clear certainty, with its sense of being special. That’s arrogance, too.

In the end, the answer to the question, “Who has called you?” is simple: It’s God. It’s Jesus Christ. It’s the Holy Spirit.

You’re called to be a light, sometimes among many others shining brightly and sometimes to be the lone lamp in the darkness. You’re called to be a light to those next to you, to your neighbors, and to the nations.

You’re called to be a light, so that all may see that God’s salvation has come to the Earth.

Who has called you?


The photo “Little Candles” is by Samuel John. Used by permission under Creative Commons license.

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on January 15, 2017

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1 Comment

  1. by Gordon Bates

    On January 17, 2017

    Amen to the falseness of the prosperity gospel. I think many pastor-preachers walk a fine line in their desire to acknowledge that they and their congregation have been blessed.

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