Friends, what a special day to be offering a word for you, as we get to celebrate both coming to the Table for Communion, as well as celebrating our graduates. I am grateful for all of the work that has gone into today’s service, including Daniel and Natsuko’s wonderful music, Jessica and Jack serving as liturgists, and all of the ways each of you have shown up either in person or on Zoom.
In our text for the day, we will encounter Moses at the burning bush embracing a call by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. We ground ourselves today in one of the beginning tales of the Exodus story, before the plagues, Passover, Ten Best Ways to Live, golden calf, and lots and lots of walking. Indeed, a great journey is coming to Moses and God’s people, and we are spending today looking at the turning point that prompts that foundational journey.
Biblical scholars refer to our text today as an example of a call narrative, which is a literary form found throughout the Hebrew Bible Scriptures that follows a similar format: an initial call, a reluctance or description of unworthiness by the person being called, a solemn commissioning, and then a characteristic message. We see this call narrative form also with the calling of Samuel, with Jonah, and especially with the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. Biblical scholar Dr. Catherine Murphy argues that the function of these call narratives should be “considered to have been recited publicly on formal occasions, during which they functioned to guarantee the validity of the prophet and more importantly to legitimate the divine origin of their teachings or oracles”. With the form and function of a call narrative in mind, let us take a closer look at Moses’s call, with the hopes of finding some pearl of wisdom or inspiration for our lives today. Jessica is going to come and read our text for today. Jessica?
Let us pray
In our Moses call narrative, we see the first two parts of the form, the initial call and reluctance of Moses, twice, and considering the rest of his story, I personally can relate to Moses and his a-little-too-often needed reminder of what he was doing and why. I’m sure none of us here today have ever needed to be reminded of what we’re supposed to be doing, especially when that doing gets hard. Thankfully, God shows Moses abundant grace as he continues to doubt and question that calling. God is calling Moses to help lead the Israelites out of Egypt, as God names the ways in which they suffered at the hands of the Egyptians. We get a clear understanding from this text that God is present with those suffering, and that God is active in creation bringing about peace and healing through restoring the Israelites’ dignity and humanity. And that we, or at least Moses in this instance, are called to be a part of that creation work. God sees all of Moses--his gifts and talents, his weaknesses, his insecurities, his shortcomings--and yet God still chooses Moses to lead God’s people to freedom in a land “flowing with milk and honey”. Moses takes the call.
I wanted to explore this form of a call narrative today for two reasons: first, to consider what our own callings might be during this time of reopening, reengaging, and renovating; and second, to speak to our beloved graduates to offer them a word of encouragement as they lean into their own callings during this season of graduation and transition.
What might your call look like for today? And how have you interacted with your calling by God thus far? When we think about calling and vocation, we often assume it is meant to be something religious in nature: called to be a prophet, a pastor, a Director of Family Ministries, a missionary, a deacon, an elder. And while these are all excellent examples of calling, this understanding of calling is quite limited, and our text today does more than that. In our scripture today, it is true that God is calling Moses to be a leader, but not specifically as a religious leader. If anything, God is calling Moses to be a rebel; to rebel against the systems and structures that have oppressed God’s people, to stand with those who are suffering, and to boldly proclaim that injustice is not the final word. When we frame our understanding of calling as such, we then understanding the calling of folk in modern history who have heeded a similar call: to take a stand for racial equality by refusing to give up a seat on a bus in segregated Montgomery, Alabama; to take a stand and say no more at the Stonewall Inn in New York, to boldly proclaim that Black and Brown Lives Matter.
From this perspective, callings certainly involve risk, whether it is upsetting the status quo or going against the grain, so it again is no surprise that we see Moses understand what’s at risk through his calling by God at the burning bush and to try to push back with reluctance and doubt. And yet, God wavers not, equipping Moses with the tools and wisdom needed to get the job started. There is no guarantee by God that it will be easy, or that Moses will even finish the job (spoiler alert: he dies before they get to the Promised Land). There are no concessions made by God in this calling, and it sticks with Moses from the moment it is revealed. It is a true turning point, or threshold moment, that shapes the rest of Moses’ life.
Graduates, not only are you in a season of wrestling with this calling and vocation, but you are also sitting at a threshold moment. Our worship professor at SFTS, Dr. Marcia McFee, describes threshold moments within the structure of worship as a transition from “ordinary” getting-things-underway to an extraordinary ritual moment full of anticipation, awe, and mystery that gets our attention. I would argue that you are sitting in your own threshold moment as you look to start a new season of life in the coming months. This will be happening for all of us as we continue to enter into our “new normal” of life after the covid-19 pandemic.
So as we begin to blossom again, to emerge from our shelter-in-place cocoon, what are you going to do? Whose call are you going to take? Where might God be leading you in this moment? Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle (modernized) once quoted: “It is the first of all problems for a person to find out what kind of work they are to do in this universe”. In our text today, we see that problem resolved by Moses through the work of God. And it is an apt quote to explore in this season we find ourselves in today. While I cannot offer any sage advice as to figuring out your own unique calling, I can offer a framework for discovering and naming that work. Christian Ethicist Cynthia Moe-Lobeda names the process for entering into this work as critical mystical vision, and it has three interdependent parts: seeing what is in the world, seeing what could or ought to be, and then trusting and leaning into the Holy Spirit to move and inspire the way. As we emerge from our shelter-in-place, we have hopefully spent time turning inward and seeing what is in ourselves and in our world, and now as we move outward, we are to dream dreams and hold visions for what might be: a world with more unshakeoffable love flowing with justice, truth, liberation, and healing for all. And with our Pentecost flames and spirit in tow, we move into the work of sharing this love with all.
As I enter into my final year of seminary (fingers crossed), I’ve been reflecting on my own calling and the ways in which my understanding of that calling has evolved and expanded and revealed. While our initial call might not be as bright or hot or vivid as Moses and the burning bush, I have seen even within my own life the way in which my own calling by God has taken shape. In this season of graduations, I thought I’d share with you a picture that I got from my mom recently.
This is me in my kindergarten graduation cap and gown. I know I am biased, but I mean what a cutie. At my kindergarten graduation from Forest Park Daycare, I remember being asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I think I said something like a fireman, to be just like my dad. But, according to my family, I really liked playing two other things: chef, and teacher. While my vocational dreams as a youngster typically floated between fireman, paleontologist, and astronaut, my family’s mothers tell me that when I around this age I said that I wanted to have my own cooking show like Emeril Lagasse where I would cook for a live crowd, but while the food was cooking in the oven, I wanted to preach. Seriously, yall, this was my dream as a kid, and that dream has honestly stuck with me since I was a youngin. So as I reflect on that after 25 years of exploring any sort of call, it’s pretty incredible that while I don’t necessarily see this exact dream coming to fruition (if there are any talent agents out there listening, call me), it is interesting to see how that dream has ever evolved to this moment of standing in front of you, offering a word, waiting to feast at the Table with you.
Friends, as we lean into our own callings, today we have the special opportunity to recognize and celebrate our graduates who sit in their threshold moments. One of the most important pieces of our work in that moment is to remind them that they are not alone in this journey. For our high school graduates, that means sending them from this place with a hand-knit prayer shawl, made with love from within our own community. These shawls do not necessarily hold any supernatural power on their own but are given as a symbol and a reminder of our love and support for you. Just as God is with you always, present in your work and in the work of the world, so may we go with you along your journey, a journey that will be filled with ups and downs, highs and lows, roses and thorns. As we go from this place, may you, and may us all, remember the unwavering love that goes with us through our God and our community. Be willing and ready to take the call, and go in peace and in love.
Now we’re going to move into our more formal time of recognizing our graduates. Rev. Scott, Jessica, and I will lead us in a time of prayer and recognition for the work you have accomplished thus far, and a commissioning to go out into the world to keep doing creation work of tending and mending the world with love. After we celebrate our graduates, we’ll then move into setting and preparing the table for a great feast, nourishing ourselves to leave this place beloved and empowered.
©2021 Patrick O'Connor