Epiphany 3 A: Being Before Doing

Matthew 4:12-23

Dear Partner in Preaching,

This is the third time I am starting this letter to you. The first time I felt like it was going in the wrong direction after just a few paragraphs. The second time, even with more than 900 words, it just didn’t seem like it said much. And so I’m trying again. Some weeks it’s like that – you just have a hard time finding something to say and then another hard time saying it. You’ve been there, I’ve been there. It’s part of the call.

And that’s what I want to focus on: the call. Except not just our call, but instead the call, God’s call, God’s call to each and every one of us.

First, a brief look at this compressed and rather eventful passage. It starts out rather ominously, as John’s imprisonment sparks Jesus to withdrawal to what might be considered the backwaters of Capernaum in Galilee. But lest some think that Jesus’ move to Galilee is prompted by his need to put some distance between himself and Herod, Matthew makes clear that all of these events move in tune with God’s redemptive activity. And, indeed, from that place off the beaten path, Jesus proclaims the coming kingdom of God and invites those listening to turn around (repent) to receive this kingdom. He then begins gathering disciples and finally manifests the nature of the kingdom he’s been proclaiming by teaching, preaching, and healing.

A lot is going on here, and I realize one could go in a variety of directions. But what strikes me is the sense of calling that permeates this passage. The call to John the Baptist, even though it leads to imprisonment. Jesus’ withdrawal, which in Matthew is not about retreating but rather an intentional time to listen and respond to God’s call. Then Jesus’ own call to the crowds to perceive and become a part of God’s in-breaking kingdom, followed by his call to a few specific fishermen, those he has called as his disciples to catch up all kinds of people in the net of God’s grace.

There are different kinds of callings, yet each is from God. And I think our people need to hear that.

Some years ago, as part of a Lilly Endowment sponsored grant on vocation, the research team I worked with discovered that while most of the graduates of our seminaries identified “vocation” and “calling” as important theological concepts that were at the center of their preaching and teaching, very few of their parishioners actually felt called. Very few of them, that is, believed that what they did with most of their time mattered to God and the church or made a particular difference in the world.

I’m not sure how many of us realize this. Perhaps it’s because we have the luxury of working in an occupation where our faith, work, family, and many other dimensions of our lives all come together. Our work can be draining, challenging, downright hard at times, to be sure, and we may wonder whether it is making a difference, but it’s rare to wonder if it is a call from God. We may even wonder if we are called, but not that ministry is a calling. Indeed, in some religious traditions “the call” is reserved for ordained ministry. Many of our people, however, have a hard time seeing a direct a connection between what they do and what they believe, which is why they don’t feel called.

Lately, I’ve been wondering whether part of the problem is the way I just constructed that last sentence, focusing on “the connection between what they do and what they believe.” Maybe, that is, calling is less about what we do than who we are. Think about it for a moment: God’s call isn’t simply to do something, but rather to be something, a child of God. Maybe being comes before doing. Maybe being even makes doing possible.

Is that what made it possible for John to proclaim the coming Messiah and challenge the powers that be, even when it meant his imprisonment? That he knew God had called him to be the forerunner? Is that what summoned such an immediate response from Peter and Andrew, James and John, that they felt called to be more than they had imagined? They probably have no idea what being “fishers of people” even means at this point in the story, but they do know that Jesus sees something in them, something of value and worth. They have no idea where they will go, or what they will do, but they do know that Jesus is calling them to be his disciples, and they trust that the rest will become clear in time.

Perhaps that’s our task this week, Dear Partner: simply to remind our people that they are called to be children of God. Even if they don’t quite know what being a child of God exactly means, we can tell them that God values and honors and loves and them. And we can tell them something else, too, that if they are open to being God’s children, they will learn over time what it means and, indeed, find all kinds of things to do in response to God’s call. Maybe the “doing” will come through their work. Or maybe through their volunteering. My guess is that most of their “doing” – that is, living out their calling in word and deed – will come through their relationships. But however it is that God may use them – indeed, all of us – it’s important to remember that before God calls us to do anything God first calls us to be something: God’s own beloved children. And knowing this, we can trust that the rest will follow.

And don’t let it stop there. Because this calling isn’t only for individuals, it’s also for our congregations. Last week I invited us to consider what one need our particular congregation can meet and to allow that sense of calling to shape the year to come. I still think that’s a helpful exercise, but perhaps before figuring out what we are called to do as a congregation, we can remind each other what we are called to be. Because God is calling our congregations to be the gathering of God’s beloved children. God is calling our congregations to be places of welcome and acceptance. God is calling our congregations to be sanctuaries where God’s word is taught, the good news of the kingdom is proclaimed, and all find healing.

We live, I know, at a turbulent time in our country and world, where the needs run great. And so I understand if we want to get going and do something. But if we can first focus on being – just being – God’s beloved children, and let that grace-filled identify seep into the deepest parts of ourselves, I have little doubt that those things we are called to do will become clear in time.

You, too, are called to be something, Dear Partner, for you are called to be those through whom God offers words of mercy, grace, and hope. It is not always an easy call, as some weeks the words don’t come as readily as we’d wish, but it is nevertheless a good call, and I am grateful that you have heard it. For both your being and your doing mean more than you realize. Thank you. Even more, thank God for you.

Yours in Christ,