September 3, 2017
Exodus 3:1-15; Romans 12:9-18
“A Clear Call”
Through my work in the Admissions Office at Union Seminary, I had the privilege to hear hundreds of people share their stories of sensing God’s call. I had a lot of practice of listening to call stories while attending seminary as well. “So…what’s your call story?” was a frequent question around the campus, often a short cut to small talk; think of it like discussing the weather among church nerds. Some women and men were eager to accept God’s call; they had the clarity of Mary, Jesus’ mother, or the prophet Isaiah, and they responded with a resounding, “Yes! I can’t wait to serve and share God’s love!” I remember meeting one young woman in a coffee shop; barely 21 at the time, she told me she first wanted to be a minister when she was in middle school. One classmate of mine started studying Biblical Greek in high school to prepare, and finding our seminary Greek courses basic and a little boring, he began reading the Harry Potter series in Koine Greek for a challenge. I marveled at these people and their stories, at such a clear sense of certainty and confidence of how God was calling them over many years.
Truth be told, I felt more comfortable with those who were still struggling, those who wrestled with their call, much like Jacob or Jeremiah. To be completely honest, I was never comfortable with my call while a seminary student myself. My own call story was often shared as a joke, “In Presbyterian fashion, I was called by a committee—two to be exact.” I’m grateful I was invited by the Church in Vocation crowd in Charlotte to consider ministry and study at seminary for a trial year, but I was really nervous they got it wrong. The imposter complex whirled in my head, and like Moses who was full of doubt, I wondered if they really knew who they had sent off to seminary. But after years of questioning my call and doubting I would ever work in a church one day, I’m here to give thanks that God is patient, and to testify that God works with knuckleheads and the doubtful; and I’m grateful so many saints have taken a chance on me along the way.
Presbyterians have always believed that everyone is called by God to share their gifts with love. All God’s people are called to be faithful and to use their gifts to build up Christ’s community, not just those who work in the church. For those of you who are overwhelmed by the call to live like Christ in today’s world, who wonder how God is still at work and still leading you, for those of you who are curious, full of questions, doubt, and perhaps even a high dose of anxiety—today’s story from Exodus is for you.
We find Moses minding his own business, watching over his father-in-law’s flocks, and venturing out beyond the wilderness. Now, throughout the Bible amazing things happen and God often shows up in the wilderness, and this story from Exodus offers one more example. There, on the mountain of God, the angel of the Lord appears in the fire of a bush that is not consumed by the flames, and God speaks to Moses, with clear instructions for what he needs to do in that very moment, and in the near future. Recognizing that the voice of the Divine is speaking, Moses obeys God’s first imperative, and takes off his shoes on such sacred ground. But standing without his sandals in front of the flaming shrubbery is merely the introduction. The instructions that follow are increasingly daring and demanding. God plans to send Moses to Pharaoh in order to deliver the Israelites from their enslavement by the Egyptians. God heard his people crying for justice, begging for mercy, and God chose Moses as his messenger to challenge those in power, to offer hope and a new life for God’s people. But Moses doesn’t think he is up for the task. He questions why he should be the one to stand up to Pharaoh and be so bold against the powers and principalities that have pushed God’s people to the brink. Moses doubts God and this call coming forth from the flickering flames. Not once, not twice, but four times, Moses attempts to maneuver himself out of the divine declaration; he banters with God and tries his best to come up with logical reasons why God should select someone else. Yet each time, God responds with patience and power. God reassures Moses that the presence of the Lord will be with him, and that the same God who stood fast by Moses’ ancestors will see him through. The covenant between God and Abraham will extend to include God’s promises to Moses and the Israelites. Despite his best attempt to decline, Moses accepts God’s call, and his partnership with God unfolds in ways he could not have imagined on that mountain.
I find it helpful to note that while God was convincing Moses of the call, God didn’t lay out all the details of what happens next. The ten plagues, the golden calf, and 40 years of wandering with complainers didn’t make it into the fine print of the negotiations of this call. God did not offer Moses a mission statement or a 10 year (or 40 year) strategic plan. Let’s be clear: Moses did not fully know what he was agreeing to, and yet, after his attempts to defer and deny God’s call, Moses accepted and he went. He knew who God was, and he knew God would stay with him, and he went to Pharaoh and he ushered God’s people to the promised land. If you read Exodus further, Moses’ story includes adventures like frogs, flies, thunder and hail, darkness, pillars of cloud and fire, crossing the Red Sea, and bread from heaven, but he didn’t know all that was coming when he said yes. Moses did not know the full picture of how his call would unfold, but he trusted that the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob would be present with him all along the journey.
Like Moses, we don’t know the full extent of how our own call will play out either. The good news is that we too, can trust God’s presence to be steadfast. Believing that we are named, called, and claimed at our baptism, we acknowledge we don’t know the details of how our lives will be impacted by our faith, we don’t fully envision how God will show up and show us the way. However, like Moses, we called to be faithful and to trust God’s presence.
Today I want to offer a particular word of thanks to those in our church family who didn’t know what they were signing up for when they answered the call. They were called to serve on a committee…and those gracious folks who are still serving on the building committee today deserve our gratitude. The good news is that unlike Moses’ venture, it won’t take 40 years to see the promised land, but I appreciate that at times it has probably felt like 40 years of labor. These faithful servants among us have spent years—years! meeting on Tuesday mornings with architects, contractors, builders, and church staff to discuss and decide the details of bringing the vision of the new wing to life. When they initially said yes, that they would be willing to serve, they didn’t know that two fuel tanks would be found underground, or that a survey would be twelve inches off, or that the humidity in the building would need to decrease by just a few degrees in order for the bamboo flooring to be installed…there was no way they could foresee all that was ahead of them. And yet they said yes, and they stayed steadfast, and we will have a new wing at UPC…soon! This too, is good news.
Like Moses, like our very own building committee, we as a congregation don’t know all that lies ahead. In the coming months, we may search for signs from God or for pillars of cloud and fire to guide our discernment and lead the way. There are a lot of unknows as we experience transitions in leadership. But there is one thing I know to be true: love is always at the center of God’s call. God’s love shows up in different ways, and we are called to share the love of God through different gifts, just as John preached from Romans last week. As our epistle lesson today reminds us, we are called to “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; [to] love one another with mutual affection, [and] serve the Lord. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another.” Paul’s directives to the community in Rome still serve as a guide to how we are called to be a community of God’s people. Now realistically, living up to such high standards of love, honor, service, compassion, and peace is challenging work. As Moses’ story reminds us, living out God’s call and love includes more than rainbows, the promised land, milk, and honey. Yet, even when we find ourselves discouraged, doubtful, or in the darkness, we are called to center ourselves on God’s love. Just as Nancy told the children last week, we are called to be the light. Especially when the path ahead is unknown, the call to love is clear.
Given the devastation that Hurricane Harvey brought to Texas and Louisiana, this story from NPR’s StoryCorps podcast offers some hope.
Nearly ten years after [Katrina], the [Lower Ninth Ward] neighborhood still did not have a single grocery store. But Ninth Ward resident Burnell Cotlon set out to change that. Using money saved while working at fast food restaurants and dollar stores, he bought a dilapidated building on an empty block. And in 2014 he opened the Lower Ninth Ward’s first grocery store since the storm. At StoryCorps, he sat down with his mother, Lillie, to remember the days after the flood.
BURNELL COTLON: I remember coming back home, that was the first time I cried.
… I was in that FEMA trailer for almost three years. And I drove around the Ninth Ward. We didn’t have [any] stores, no barber shops, no laundry rooms. …
Right, you have to catch three buses to get to a store. And I always was taught if there’s a problem, somebody’s got to make a move. So I decided to open up a grocery store. I remember when I first bought the building, everybody thought that I was crazy.
LILLIE COTLON: When I peaked in the door before you started working, I said, “This is nothing but junk!” I mean, it was trash and debris on the floor that you had to crawl over and, “How can he make anything out of this?” But you were one of my very interesting sons, always jumping into things you had no business doing.
BURNELL COTLON: It was hard, it was real, real hard. And those 8-hour days turned into 14, 15 hours a day. But what motivated me the most was seeing the people that [were] walking by with the groceries and seeing them get off the bus with all of those bags. That made me work harder. We finally did the ribbon cutting ceremony and that day I will never forget, you served the very first…
Sno-ball. And the very first customer cried ‘cuz she said she never thought the Lower Ninth Ward was coming back.
Just seeing so many people, the look on their faces, it’s a joy. It’s a headache back then but now it’s worth it. … ‘Cuz it’s home.
Burnell returned home and with love, drive, vision, and a hard work ethic, he changed his neighborhood. His vision to open a grocery store didn’t make sense to his mother at the beginning; sometimes following a call isn’t rational. But there is no doubt that Burnell’s call was prompted by love and hope.
God’s call may catch us by surprise, like the wonder of a bush aflame. Following God’s call may include long days and hard work, like opening up a grocery store. Yet, the core of God’s call is always, always love. We cannot predict exactly what will happen when we follow God’s call. We may not envision the details of how we will be the church tomorrow, or who God will call to guide our congregation into the next chapter, but we’ll get there together, faithfully with love. So, how is God calling you? How are you called to love? God is patient and persistent, even if you can’t see the promised land.
 Burnell Cotlon and Lillie Cotlon. Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work, Story Corps. https://storycorps.org/listen/burnell-cotlon-and-lillie-cotlon-150821/