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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

August 12, 2018

 Worthy of Our Calling

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Ephesians 4:1-16

            Thornton Wilder was born in 1897.  He grew up for part of his childhood, in China, where he attended a mission school.  His brother Amos would grow up to be a Presbyterian minister and New Testament scholar, who taught at the Harvard Divinity School.  Thornton Wilder is a unique thinker in American life.  He is the only man to win a Pulitzer Prize both for a play that he wrote – in fact, he wrote two Pulitzer prize-winning plays – and a novel that he wrote in 1927, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.  In 1938, he wrote the play called, Our Town.  I dare say that more than a few of you had to, at some point along the way of your education, read Thornton Wilder’s, Our Town.  It was even made into a movie.  It tells the story of a girl named Emily, who dies as a young adult, giving birth to her second child. 

            The narrator of the play is called the Stage Manager, and in the play, the Stage Manager is the God figure.  Emily, in Act 2, begs the Stage Manager to let her return, for just one day, from the place of the dead, to earth again, to Grovers Corners, the little town in New Hampshire, the only place where she ever lived.  The Stage Manager has very mixed feelings about this request, but, finally, he gives in.  She chooses to return to Grovers Corners on what she regarded as the happiest day of her life, her twelfth birthday.  Only when she returns, she can see things that are happening, but they cannot see or sense her.  (An idea that has been highjacked many times since in popular movies!)  Emily finds it almost unbearable to see how unaware everyone is of what a gift, what a miracle, what a precious and singular thing, life itself is.  She cannot stand it anymore, and she begs the Stage Manager to let her return .  You will recall, upon her return, she asks three very pointed questions.  She says, “Do any human beings really live while they are alive?”  The second question is this: “Are we ever rescued from selfish passion?”  The third question Emily wants to know: “Do we ever draw close to another person in this life?”

            I am thinking about these three questions that Emily asked, as I am pondering this powerful fourth chapter in Ephesians.  Emily’s first question points to what I would call the “challenge of vocation,” or finding our God-given calling.  “Do any human beings realize life while they live it?”  Paul puts it this way: “I therefore, a prisoner of the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”  Note Paul’s assumption here, because if you miss it, you can miss out on life completely.  Paul assumes that all the Christians in Ephesus, have a calling, a calling that is given to them by God.  For Paul to be a Christian, is to be called by the Living God; it is to answer a Divine summons for your life, it is to be called by God to fulfill purposes larger and deeper than your own small life.

            Part of the problem – and this is a challenge – is that we so often in our culture get confused over the difference between a career and a vocation or a calling.  William May taught at Southern Methodist University for many years.  He reminded us that “career comes from the Latin word carrera.”  We get the word “car” from “carrera,” and we also get the word “racetrack” from “carrera.”  May writes and says, “Both a car and a career keep you going in circles rapidly and competitively.”  He also points out than another name for a “car” is an “automobile,” a word which means “self-driven.”  And that is the problem with so many careers!  We are self-driven when we think only in terms of career.  That is not the way God intended for any of us to live the one life we have been given to live.  A calling, on the other hand, comes from a Latin word as well, the word “vocare,” which means “to call.”  It means to live according to another voice, another claim upon your life, a purpose that is God-given, that is larger than your own.  For people of faith, a calling means that you are to live your life for God.

            William Sloane Coffin talked about the difference between a career and a calling.  He said, “A career seeks to be successful; a calling seeks to be valuable.  A career tries to make money; a calling tries to make a difference.  A career seeks to gain; a calling is all about what you came to give.”  Coffin says, “You might say a career helps you to win the rat race; a calling reminds you that even if you win, you might still be a rat!”

            No career is big enough for the gifts and the purposes that God holds for your life, for all that God has poured into you.  Only a calling, a life lived in response to God’s gracious intentions, will do.  It is why the Bible is jammed-packed with stories of how God calls people.  Paul is called by God, knocked from his mount, on the Damascus Road, and it changes completely the direction and scope of his life.  Abraham is called by God to leave the land he knows, for a land that is promised, that through his family, God would bless all the families of the earth.  Moses was called from a burning bush.  Mary was called by an angel of the Lord to bring God’s child into the world. 

            Stephen Covey wrote a book in the 1980’s that, next to the Bible, was the number one selling book for that decade.  Remember the name of the book? Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  (I used to call it, Seven Habits of Highly Defective People, because at some level, all of us are defective!)  He said, “Effective people begin with the end in mind.”  They have a sense of calling, a sense of destiny that draws them into God’s future.  He offers a sentence in the book that I have never forgotten.  Covey said, “People are either led by their dreams, or followed by their problems.”  The choice is yours.  What Covey is saying is, keep your dreams alive and stay open to God who calls you all the days of your life.  Ask this question: “Who is it that God wills and wants for me to become?”  I do not care what age you are, or what stage you are in your journey, that question is the question that all of us need to ask every day of our lives, as we move into claiming the fullness of God’s intentions for them.  It is what I call, “The Big Question,” and big questions are always God-questions.  Who is it that God is calling you to be, and what is it that you are called by God to do with the one life that God has given you?

            Emily’s second question points to Paul’s second great challenge.  Remember the question?  “Are we ever rescued from selfish passion?”  This is the challenge: to live for something larger and nobler, more lasting than simply our own desires.  It is the challenge specifically to embody virtue into our lives.  Paul put it like this: “With all humility and gentleness, with patience bearing with one another in love.”  These are some of the classical virtues that would become, for the Christian Church, the Christian virtues, or cardinal virtues.  Paul would write about them elsewhere, mentioning humility.  To the Romans he says, “I bid every one among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement.”  This is a call to humility as a virtue, as a way of life.  You know this, but I will remind you of it again: Nothing is more becoming, more attractive, more winsome to a person than for them to be genuinely humble.  And nothing is more of a turnoff, or more off-putting, than for someone to be conceited, or full of themselves or, as my friend Mark Durrett said about another friend of ours, “He’s an island bordered on all sides by himself.”  No one wants to be friends with that person, and no one, please God, wants to be that person!  Having a true, honest estimate of yourself is a precious asset to carry through life. 

            The same is true with gentleness, which Paul commends.  Remember what Saint Frances de Sales said?  “There is nothing so strong as true gentleness; nothing so gentle as true strength.”  It was said of Jesus that He was “so gentle that He would not break a bruised reed, nor quench a burning wick.”  We quickly get confused about what constitutes strength in a human being.  Paul here reminds us true strength is a call by God for us to live in gentleness with others.  Paul also here commends patience, which is a fruit of the Spirit, which Paul commends elsewhere in Galatians.  Remember the fruit of the Spirit?  “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”

            I know we have a President now who ran with the promise, often on red ball caps, “Make America Great Again.”  I am not against this notion, but it strikes me that it might be a better place for us to try to, “Make America Good Again.”  Remember what Alexis de Tocqueville said when he came to America in 1832?  He observed that he came to America from France to look for what made America great. He didn’t find it in our farms and fields, as wonderful as they were.  He didn’t find it in our factories or our marketplaces.  But then he went to America’s churches and synagogues.  There he found what made America great.  He wrote, “America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she shall cease to be great.”  I think it would help us to seek to make America good again, beginning with each of our lives, who care about where God has placed us, and who love this country.

            I had a teacher in high school who was also my wrestling coach.  He was the NCAA wrestling champion from Lehigh University.  He also taught calculus.  Best of all, he was a Syrian Christian, and his name, honestly, was Solomon!  Mr. Solomon – I will never forget this – before he gave us our first calculus test, said, “Today you’re taking a test in calculus, but I’m also giving you a test in honesty.  A host of good people will never pass a test in calculus, but there is no human being worth their salt who cannot pass a test in honesty.  If you have to pass only one of these, choose honesty.”  Goodness is what Paul is commending here.

            George Hendry was a Scot, a retired Professor of Theology at Princeton Seminary when I had him for his course on the Doctrine of God.  His throwaway lines were often some of the most unforgettable things I took from that class.  One of them was this: “When I was a young man, I was impressed with clever people, but now that I’m an old man, I’m impressed with kind people.” 

            One final challenge is found in Emily’s third question, “Do we ever get close to another person in this life?”  I think Paul is talking here about the power of community, and how important it is to be someone, who out of the closest relationships of your life, creates community, belonging, oneness wherever you find yourself living.  Paul puts it like this: “Maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  This is our highest calling!  You either work to bring people together wherever you are, or you are working against the very purposes of God.  You either live your life in a way that brings peace and unity to this world, or you disappoint God by the conflict that you are fomenting by your life.  Some people are so conflicted on the inside that wherever they go, conflict has a way of following.  That is why Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” 

            I have been your pastor for almost sixteen and a half years, and I am so aware, as I have announced my intention to retire at the end of January, of all the things that I have not succeeded at doing as your minister.  But one thing I know I have brought to this wonderful community is a sense of unity.  When I came to this church, Billy Webb, who has now gone on to heaven, said to me, “Welcome, Todd, to the Fighting First!”  He laughed as he said it, but I got the message.  Pat Wilson asked me over to his house when I first came here, and he said, “Well, how are things going at Fighting First?”  I said to Pat, “Well, I’m kind of trying to get a sense of the currents.”  Pat said, “Well, that isn’t going be enough.  To get on here, you need to know, not just the currents, but the crosscurrents and the undercurrents as well!”  We both laughed, but again, I heard what he was saying.

            The reason, last year, this church gave away $1,300,000 to mission is because we have not been fighting.  We are together; we have been a family, not a perfect church.  The reason we have given away over $18,000,000 to mission, over the years we have shared, is because we have not been fighting; we have been focused on our mission “to know Christ, to make Christ known, and to exhibit His love through worship, education and service.”  The reason we are dedicating a new church today in Hendersonville is because we have been together as a people, one church.  It is the reason we have built almost twenty Habitat for Humanity homes in this community, and the reason we have sent over 196,000 meals through Rise Against Hunger to feed hungry people around the globe.

            Churches that are always in conflict, or churches that are totally focused on their own life and on themselves, do not do these kinds of things.  And you have been a singular church in that way!  You know this, you hear it and read about it all the time, but we live in a diverse world, and we all need to be people, and more importantly, parents and grandparents, who raise our children to be artists in bringing people together.  It is so easy to tear folks apart, or to talk about the ways that we are different and better than others.  It is easy to find reasons to divide folks.  It is far harder, and more pleasing to God, to be someone who is a peacemaker, who knows how to create genuine community.  Paul said, “There is one body, and one Spirit, and one hope to your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.”  Seven times in this passage, Paul uses the word “one.”  Do you get the message?  You either work for community, to bring people together, or you work against the very purposes of the God we know in Jesus Christ.

            So a little boy, about thirteen years old, walked into a pharmacy back in the days when pharmacies had coin-operated phones – some of the only public phones in town – and he said to the druggist, “Sir, may I use your phone?”  The druggist said, “Yes.”  He went over, put his dime in, and said, “Dr. Anderson, do you want to hire a boy to cut your grass, and to run errands for you, and to do odd jobs?  Oh, you already have a boy like that?  Well, are you happy with the boy that you have?  Oh, okay.  Thank you, Dr. Anderson, goodbye.”  The boy hung up the phone, he started walking out the drugstore, and the druggist said, “Wait a second, I think I have a job, and I could hire a boy like you to work for me.”  The boy said, “Oh, I don’t need a job, I already have a job.”  He said, “Weren’t you just calling Dr. Anderson to find out if he needed an errand boy and someone to do his odd jobs?”  He said, “Well, actually, I’m that boy.  I was just calling to check up on myself, to see how I was doing.”

            Maybe today would be a good day for you to do the same thing!  “I beg you, lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”

                                                                                    Amen.

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