“How to Say Yes to God.” Sometimes when I come up with a sermon title, I think, “Hmm, I can’t wait to find out what I have to say about this, because I really want to know what the answer is.” This was one of those times.
I began preparing for this sermon by reflecting on people who have clearly found the thing that God calls them to, whether they frame their lives in those terms or not.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who passed away recently, having been the voice of justice and reparations, helping South Africa to transition away from apartheid.
Bill McKibben, the longtime writer and speaker and organizer on the perils of climate change. Our Social and Environmental Justice Book Group is reading one of his books right now.
Renee Fleming, the opera singer.
Alfred Poole, who advocated for and worked with people experiencing homelessness and hunger in the Puget Sound area.
Traci Blackmon, who has been a fearless leader of Justice and Local Ministries for the UCC and before that was an on-the-ground community justice leader in St. Louis in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting.
KUOW’s podcast “The Wild” currently features an episode on David Johnson, who has made it his life’s work to research owls. He says, “There are two important days in your life: the day that you're born, and the day you find out why…. I know why I was born — for the owls. So I'm going to work with owls until my very last breath.” (KUOW - Goodbye chemical weapons, hello burrowing owls.) There is someone who has found his calling and says yes to it with complete commitment.
But as I thought about each of these people, I realized I was trying to show people who had said yes, but not how they had done so. I wasn’t answering my own question. And the question of how also brings up the question of then what.
I like to bring up the little topics, easily addressed in one brief sermon….
So here’s the plan. We will talk about the discernment process of responding to God’s call—the how. And then we’ll spend some time with the then what. And if this all brings up stories or questions for you, jot them down, and we’ll have a bit of discussion time at the end of the sermon.
Most of us go through life without having a burning bush experience such as Moses had when God called to him. We may also never find ourselves in the temple, like Isaiah, having a vision of God surrounded by flying seraphim. But at some unexpected moment, we may have the experience that God is calling us by name to do something. An opportunity presents itself, a need becomes clear, a door cracks open. Or, as Robert Frost writes in “The Road Not Taken,”
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth….
(Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken,” The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost | Poetry Foundation.)
What lies down that road? How much can I tell about that path just by standing here and looking?
And all sorts of considerations come up. Do I take this job offer, which would involve moving the whole family across the country? Do I commit to this relationship? Do I walk away from my life as it currently is and move to Africa to build houses with Habitat for Humanity? Do I enroll in a degree program? Do I start my own business? Do I decide to have children?
We can’t see far enough down any of these roads to know how they will turn out. It’s a leap of faith. How do we decide?
Well, in brief, here are a few suggestions.
A corollary: Do the work with others. That’s where a church can offer support and companionship. Notice that Simon Peter calls the other boat to help with all the fish.
Where does your greatest joy meet the world’s greatest need? Look for that. What makes your soul leap up with joy and also serves the needs of the world? We’re not all called to feed starving orphans halfway across the globe. Some of us are called to sing beautifully, or teach college students, or run preschools, or sew clothes, or build houses, or march in the streets, or provide resources to those without homes. Some develop vaccines; some take care of those who get sick. Some, like Isaiah, are called to speak truth to those who don’t want to hear it. Some, like Simon Peter, are called to be fishers of people. We need everyone.
Isaiah and Simon Peter both try to dodge their call. They feel unworthy of God’s attention. “Woe is me! I am lost,” says Isaiah, “I am a man of unclean lips.” Simon Peter flings himself at Jesus’ feet and says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” You may recall that Moses reacts to God’s invitation from the burning bush by trying really hard to talk God out of it. God doesn’t call people because they are perfect. God calls us exactly as we are, fears and flaws and all. Maybe God calls us to give us a chance to grow.
It’s scary to feel like you could serve God. Who am I to dare such a thing? Why would God choose little old me? Like Isaiah and Simon Peter, we may be afraid and overwhelmed; we may feel unworthy. And God calls us—yes, even us—all the same.
You may recall this poem by Marianne Williamson. I used to have it posted on my bulletin board to remind me that even I might be called. Williamson writes,
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness
that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves,
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small
does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine,
as children do.
We were born to make manifest
the glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us;
it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.
(Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love, marianne.com.)
These are thoughts about how to say yes to God. Pray, discern, ask for help, let your light shine. And then what?
God often calls us to things that can seem overwhelming, that will take everything we can give and then some. No wonder we are tempted to say we are unworthy and not up to the task. Saying yes takes courage and faith. Isaiah says yes before he finds out what the assignment is. God tells him to preach doom and gloom to people who don’t want to hear the message. I’m wondering whether Isaiah had second thoughts, but at that point he’d already committed. Peter recognizes his call when his boat, which had found no fish all night, is suddenly swamped with fish. He walks away from his fishing boat and nets and all his former life in order to follow Jesus, and indeed, saying yes takes everything. Isaiah and Peter are both transformed by their callings. Life is never the same for them. But it is rich and full of meaning. They change the world.
We can relate to the overwhelming nature of a call. The needs of the world are great and only growing greater. Homelessness has become a huge issue in Seattle. Climate change is making the livable parts of the world smaller; as a result, there are now over 80 million refugees looking for new homes. The coronavirus continues its grim march through humanity. We passed the milestone this week of 900,000 deaths in the U.S., which is likely an undercount.
The Social and Environmental Justice Book Group can relate to the doom and gloom bit. We have been reading Bill McKibben’s book Falter. It’s heavy going. Bill McKibben, a quiet, wonky, Methodist from Middlebury, has been speaking truth to power about climate change for over 30 years. He is smart, knowledgeable, humorous, and humble. And at this point he feels as though we are running out of time to make the drastic changes necessary in order to have a livable planet.
Like Isaiah, McKibben answered the call to speak a truth that people didn’t want to hear, because it’s hard. Which turned out to be to preach to people with dull minds, people who had decided to stop their ears and shut their eyes, lest they face the reality and turn to be healed. Meaning, turn away from fossil fuels and find sustainable alternatives before the world is laid waste.
Likewise, Anthony Fauci preaches masks and vaccination and social distancing, and some people follow those guidelines, but others stop their ears, shut their eyes, deny the reality—and sometimes pay with their lives as well as the lives of others whom they infect.
Traci Blackmon, the head of the UCC’s Justice and Local Church Ministries, is one among many preaching and marching about racism. And still we have many who think this is not a racist society.
So when we answer God’s call, there is no guarantee that everything will be smooth sailing from then on. It certainly wasn’t for Jesus, or Isaiah, or Moses, or Peter. Or Martin Luther King, Jr., or any number of others who said yes to God’s call. Did they have regrets? I don’t dare to speak on their behalf, but my suspicion is that they all knew they were part of a much larger picture, and that their efforts made and continue to make a difference. Imagine if any of these people had said no. They changed the world! And they themselves were transformed. Their lives matter.
When we say yes to God, life changes, both for us and for those we serve. And even when we become discouraged—even when we see only desolate landscapes—and it seems as though all is lost, God still has the last word. In the midst of desolation there is a tree stump out of which the next thing will arise. J
We do the wrestling to get to yes. We give ourselves completely to the call. We recognize that even if we give everything, the issue will not be solved by us alone, but that we can make a difference. And we let God have the last word, the seed waiting in the tree stump to begin growing something new. May we be faithful to the end, always looking for those seedlings. Amen.