Your Calling, Your Work – Chuck Rush (6/25/17)

Find Your Calling
June 25, 2017
Mark 1:17-20; Mt. 28:16-20

From the time we are children, we find ourselves walking along the beach at night, surveying the wondrous sweep of the heavens above us, wondering to ourselves, “Why and I here? And what is my life going to be about?”
We peer into the future and imagine ourselves as the Doctors we hope to become one day, the pilot flying confidently in the skies, the teacher making a difference in the lives of people in need. We are wondering to ourselves, “Who am I and what am I supposed to achieve with my life?”
What is it that will bring me the fulfillment so that I can savor what is good about our living?
Whether we are particularly religious or not, almost all of us recognize this as one of the fundamental spiritual quests of our lives. We are here to actualize our potential. And we need others around us to help mentor us to show us what we can become and to pay attention to us to see what is in our character that can be molded to become something worthy, something honorable.
This was the great contribution of Martin Luther in the Reformation and it was one of the most profound factors in shaping meaning and value in Western thought for the modern world.
Luther was born in a feudal era that was socially stagnant. Saudi Arabia comes to mind as one of the few societies left, where we pay attention to the intrigues of succession within the Royal family, who have a monopoly of control over all the assets of the kingdom and there is effectively no social mobility. You are either born into a royal family or you are not and the economic roles are determined by social class as they were for your parents, your grandparents, your great grandparents, as far back in the shrouds of time as anyone can remember.
In this world, young people had only one real choice to follow a sacred vocation or a secular one. You could devote your life through the Church or you could work with your father and your uncles in the family business, cutting stones or making beer, whatever your family did for as far as they could recall.
Or you could join the monastery and enter the sacred community, following the order of life prescribed by St. Benedict or St. Ignatius, following a life of prayer that was built into the structure of the day, with 5 worship services beginning at dawn until vespers, following the seasons of the year with special feast days that recognized saints.
For this, you had to take special vows of poverty and celibacy and so it came to be considered ‘the higher way’, the more spiritual path. Indeed, after 1500 years of Christianity, monasteries had something of a lock on ‘the spiritual calling’ in Europe. Every time I go to Europe, I can’t help but reflect on just how many monasteries there were, not only in the countryside but in the major cities as well.
The spirituality of monasteries, then as now, stressed withdrawing from the temptations and the complications of the secular world to devote your life to contemplation of God through following the inward mystical path of silence, meditation, and fasting. You eschewed the temporal in favor of things eternal.
This was the higher way, the more spiritual way.
Martin Luther, as you may know, joined the monastery as a very young man but like a lot of young men, he found the requirement of celibacy more of an obstacle than a guide.
But he fell in love with a Nun and eventually they married and had to leave the monastery. But he remained a Biblical scholar and, like a lot of scholars, Luther spent his academic career contrasting the simple teaching of Jesus with the immensely complex theology that had grown into the Vatican teaching over the past 1400 years.
In the process he made a simple observation that changed the course of Western thought that led directly to the secular society as we know it today, so much so, that it is somewhat impossible to imagine what we would be like without it.
And it was the meaning of “Vocation” or “Calling”. Luther pointed out that Jesus never calls us to retreat from the world in the way that Monastic spirituality was defined. Neither did Jesus teach us that there is some special interior light that we could access and nurture in solitude which was the normative teaching of his day in monasteries.
Rather, he said, our spiritual calling is to be found “in the world”. We are actually called to become morally and spiritually mature in and through our jobs. We are called to make a difference in our communities. We become “holy” or “spiritually integrated” in how we live our lives as community leaders, as leaders in our extended families, as leaders in politics and business.
There is no spiritual purity in withdrawing from the world. We actually need to make our mark in our everyday lives as parents, as better businessmen, as citizens that work towards the common good.
What Luther did was make the social order a place to exercise virtue and this shift became so important that people started to think that it was noble to leave our world a better place. Luther said, “The prince should think: Christ has served me and made everything to follow him; therefore, I should also serve my neighbor, protect him and everything that belongs to him. That is why God has given me this office, and I have it that I might serve him. That would be a good prince and ruler. When a prince sees his neighbor oppressed, he should think: That concerns me! I must protect and shield my neighbor....The same is true for shoemaker, tailor, scribe, or reader. If he is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden me do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor. When a Christian does not serve the other, God is not present; that is not Christian living.”
This is where we developed the Protestant Work Ethic, the idea that it is our responsibility to make the world a better place and to leave our children a better world than the one we inherited. It literally changed the course of Western Civilization and is credited with the impetus behind development, higher education, and the value we place upon finding our fulfillment through our work in the world.
Adam Leipzig had an experience that most of us have had here. He goes back to his 25th reunion at Yale. Towards the end of the evening, he is gathered around a whole group of people that he went to college with. Over and over, he hears people saying things like, “My life is almost half over and I’m not sure what I’ve done with it.”
It is an odd comment coming from people that are financially successful. They have one home, sometimes two. They’ve had one spouse, sometimes two… But they aren’t fulfilled. They feel like something is missing, like they have missed the point. 80% of the people he talks to feel this way.
Because they don’t have a sense of purpose. They are doing their job well because it pays well but they feel like they are killing time and wasting themselves aimlessly even if they are rich.
But about 20% of the people don’t feel that way at all and a lot of the time, they weren’t making as much money as the 80%. But they didn’t feel that way because they have a sense of purpose in their lives. They had a calling.
Jesus calls the disciples. They are fishermen. Jesus tells them, “I will make you fishers of men”. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I came not that you simply might have life but that you might have life abundantly.” I came that you might find the deeper meaning and purpose that gives our lives savor, worth, profundity.
We admire Jesus because he was a man who found that sense of mission and purpose in his life. He found something worth dying for, which means it was worth living for. It gave his life a deeper meaning and he sent us into the world to help make disciples, to help other people find their calling in this life.
And you know more about this than you think you do. We all hear the question at cocktail parties, “So what do you do?” Half the time, you probably hate answering that question because it is an invitation to compare who is more important than who in your little circle of acquaintances.
But what if I asked you this… What is your signature strength? What is it that you are an expert at or that you are becoming an expert at? If we gave you a day next week to do what you find deeply satisfying, what would you do? What would that be?
Saint Paul used to say this is your gift. Psychologist today say this is your ‘signature strength’. We all have one. What is yours?
And who do you practice it for? Who do you serve? The Psychologist, Martin Seligman, at the University of Pennsylvania has been doing studies on what makes for fulfilling human existence for the past 20 years and he is starting to summarize his findings. He says that we tap into a deeper human meaning when we are able to practice our signature strength in a community of people that are important to us and to get affirmation for doing it from them.
Who is your community? Jesus taught much the same thing. In the gospel of Matthew he says, “You shall not be like the Romans who use power to Lord it over one another. For the greatest among you is the one that serves.” Today we would say that if you want to wade into the deeper pool of meaning that our life has to offer us, find a community of people that you can serve and make their life better.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for others”. And, of course, Jesus not only taught that. The saying in John is a reflection of the way that Jesus lived. He emptied himself in the service of others and through that came to realize who he was and what he was about.
How will the world be left a better place because you have been here and practiced your signature strength? Who is it that you serve?
Reinhold Niebuhr used to say that Christianity teaches us that our own personal fulfillment is a by-product of a life lived in love fulfilling other people. What cause will you invest your life in through this chapter of your life.
And, finally, who are you? Who are you really? That becomes a more complex question the older that we become. We are from a certain family, but we are also more than the sum of our family identity. We are from a place, but we are more than the sum of our childhood. We have been educated in a certain way, but we are different than the people that we were educated with at the same time.
Increasingly, we discover the truth that Gandhi learned about the process of self-discovery. Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service to others”. All along, you are actualizing your potential when you practice your signature strength in service. Some of us through our job. Others in the way we give back. Others in the way we give a hand up to the next generation.
We are all like the soldier at the end of “Saving Private Ryan”. In the midst of a raging battle, Private Ryan is told he gets to go home. He is conflicted, confused. His comrades around him will not be so chosen. But he gets a chance, just like we all have a chance now, to live a normal life, in a relatively peaceful era, with relative safety and the chance to grow old well.
His commanding officer is mortally wounded and he pulls Private Ryan close to him and he gives him the haunting advice, “Earn this” he says. Don’t waste this opportunity! Don’t let your life slide by after so many have sacrificed for you to live in peace and freedom. Make it fulfilling.
The movie fast forwards 50 years. And now he is an old man, reflecting on those words again and he asks his wife the same question that we all ask our spouses, our closest peeps. He says, ‘tell me I was a good man’. Tell me I made a difference. Tell me that I actualized my potential and that my life was worth living.
Brothers and sisters, may you make a difference. May you live a life worth living. And through your service, may you come to know who you really are. Amen.

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Sermons & Presentations

Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.