"The Journey" by Mary Oliver
Sometimes when we hear folks talk about “calling” we imagine a scene much like the one in our reading today: an anthropomorphic God having a conversation with his chosen prophet. And so many of us who are humanist or atheist or agnostic, or who just don’t identify with an anthropomorphic deity discard this traditional idea. Today I would like for us to reclaim the idea of “calling” for Unitarian Universalists. And I’m going to get the help of one of those contemporary scriptures we Uus tend to rely on to help us connect to the holy- the poetry of Pulitzer prizing winning poet Mary Oliver, many of whose books of poetry are published by our own Beacon press. Her poem “the Journey” helps us imagine what “calling” might feel like to an ordinary modern person like us:
“One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,”
And I want to suggest to you that calling can be as simple as this. “One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began;” have you ever had that feeling, that you knew what you had to do? For the purposes of our service today, for purposes of our Uu lives, it doesn’t matter where that feeling comes from, because as Oliver goes on to write:
“there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
Ah, here is the voice. Here is the language of calling. Perhaps we are called when we learn to recognize our own voice. And though that is critically important, and can take a lifetime to do, that is not all that calling is. Having a calling is not just about listening, but also about turning what you hear into action “One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began,” There’s the rub. And that rub is where the story of Moses points us toward a universal human experience, because I believe just about every prophet in the scriptures, when they hear the call say exactly what Moses said ‘Who am I that I should go?” I bet every one of us who had heard a call has also asked such a question.
I want to give a much less lofty example from my own life, an example of calling found in the most mundane of all places – in the trash. I remember coming home from shopping one day, and I unpacked my purchases I noticed that every single thing came in a plastic container that at least matched the bulk of the product. For example, I had bought maybe an ounce of moisturizer, which came in a plastic bottle, that came in a plastic box, that came in a plastic bag. I had bought a plastic toy for my son, that came in a giant plastic hermetically sealed container, which came in its own plastic bag. When I finally finished unwrapping my purchases I had a pile of trash that would fill a kitchen trash can. And though I had making such shopping trips for years, on this day for the first time something bubbled up from deep inside me and said. “That can’t be right”
But then of course my second thought was a sense of powerlessness. “This problem is way too big for me,” I thought” there’s nothing I can do about this. Our whole society cooperates to create that giant bag of non-recyclable trash. What are you gonna do?” And this, I believe is the moment that famous bible story describes. ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ IN fact, and I love this kind of storytelling, Moses protests 3 different times. He says first in Exodus 3 “ Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring he Israelites out of Egypt?” Then in Exodus 4 he says ‘‘O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.’’ and finally in Exodus 6 Moses asks ‘Since I am a poor speaker, why would Pharaoh listen to me?’
Well I sat carried that pile of trash around with me in my mind for a couple of weeks, like a pebble in my shoe. And then “one day I finally knew what I had to do, and began” I couldn’t worry about how small my actions would be, I couldn’t wait until everyone else had received the same calling,
“determined to doI had to stop allowing that kind of waste into my life. I had to start carrying my own shopping bags, I had to stop buying products that were so packaging intensive, and I had to start learning something about the impact of all our plastic packaging waste on the planet. I had to reorganize my theology to include care for the earth in a more holistic way.
the only thing you could do --
determined to save
the only life you could save.”
It took a few weeks for that simple vision to unfold and even longer until I bought my first canvas bags, and even longer before I remembered EVERY time I went shopping to bring them with me. And let me tell you I NEVER feel like Moses when the lady at the Target makes me bag my own items because she can’t deal with my non-standard bags, or when I have to walk back to the car in the rain to get the bags I forgot AGAIN.
Except it says right there in the bible that the greatest prophet of the Jewish tradition felt insecure and not up to the task : “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” I also am encouraged by the fact that Moses says he is STILL not eloquent “now that you have spoken to your servant” When we are called, we are called just as we are, with all our human failings and weaknesses. We are not let off the hook just because we are “slow of speech and slow of tongue”
In our Unitarian Universalist tradition, we don’t believe that the days of the prophets are past. We believe that a calling can and does come to anyone, not just the famous prophets of old, not just to our eloquent brother Aaron. We believe in the prophethood of all believers. One of the great 20th century Unitarian Theologians James Luther Adams coined this phrase. He writes:
"The churches of the left wing of the Reformation …demanded a church in which every member, under the power of the Spirit, would have the privilege and the responsibility of interpreting the Gospel and also of assisting to determine the policy of the church. The new church was to make way for a radical laicism -- that is, for the priesthood and the prophethood of all believers."
Adams was converted to his world view after visiting Nazi Germany in 1935 and seeing the complacency of the churches there. While in Germany Adams used his home movie camera to film great leaders like Karl Barth and Albert Schweitzer who worked with the church-related resistance groups, and also the pro-Nazi leaders of the Christian Church. By the time he came back to the US, he was more convinced than ever that any church any layperson or clergy was called to speak out, to act against such oppression. And any which could stand by and passively let such oppression happen, was irrelevant and impotent.
So if we are all prophets, what does it mean for us to be called? When I was at seminary we were often asked about our sense of call. Most of us had a story about a time when that still small voice in each of us, the voice we had “slowly begun to recognize as our own” had beckoned us to serve our UU congregations in one kind of ministry or another. But as the years of seminary and formation wore on, it became clear that this was not all there was to a call. There is not only this sense of inner rightness, of what “I am meant to do” but there must also be, our mentors assured us, a relationship between “What I am meant to do” and what the community needs. It is not simply enough for us to go into our places of silent meditation and emerge with this vision of our calling, our vocation. The passage from Exodus we read this morning begins with a witness of the realities of the local community
“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings,”.
So we each of us have the capacity to be called by that inner voice that always tells us the truth, but that is only one part of the call, the other part of the call will come from the people around you, the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. A vocation (a word which comes form the Latin root “Vocare” meaning to call) is what we do in response to what the voice we hear inside, but also the voices we hear in the community of beings.
I had the honor or conducting a memorial service last week for a woman called Dale Bryner, who was a great artist and environmental educator. Her message to her children and to her students over those years had been clear- be exactly who you are, because you are wonderful, and know that you are part of something larger than yourselves that is happening, and that is going to be amazing.
As I carried Dale’s words around inside me this past week. I thought of you – the Towanda Universalist Fellowship, and your new minister Doug. You are still a small tribe, but you’ve been around since maybe 1866. Back then you had about 100 members. Over these past 150 years your congregation has ebbed and flowed, changed and been changed. Recently, when there were no services being held here, we thought maybe the life of this congregation was over, but then you were reborn. At this time of rebirth, this is what you must ask yourselves: Who are you? And what are you called to do? I challenge you to remember that your true vocation will be not only an interior calling, about how you will be together as a congregation and what you will learn about together, but your calling is also about the intersection where that place of inner integrity meets your place in the in the community of beings, and you will understand how you are called to serve the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
You may say to yourselves “but we are not eloquent, the community will not listen to us” but remember you don’t have to do it alone. Remember when Moses beseeches God saying “‘O my Lord, please send someone else.” And God says, though at this point he is getting to the end of his rope “What of your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently; even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad.”
So when you are feeling “slow of speech” or otherwise not up to the task, remember the Rev. Stearns can speak fluently. Remember your friends are coming even now to meet you. Like Moses had his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam, you have not only my congregation, the UU Church of Athens and Sheshequin, which has been a partner of yours off and on for 150 years, but you have the Brooklyn Church, and all the churches of the Pennsylvania Universalist Convention, of the Joseph Priestly District, and of the UUA. You are not alone. You have allies in this community, in Towanda, and more who will emerge as you discover who you are, and how you are uniquely called to serve this your community.
I asked Doug, was there anything special he wanted to be sure you knew, as you set out on your covenant together. He said he wanted to give you courage for all that lays ahead for you as a congregation. I believe it is the sense of call that gives one courage. If you know what you have to do, if you begin to recognize that voice that is your own, then you will have the courage to stride deeper and deeper into the world. I wish for you the courage that comes from the strength of knowing who you really are, and the courage that comes from your desire to serve, knowing that you are part of something larger, and that it is going to be amazing.