A Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Did you notice that the Collect for the Day we just prayed includes a pretty bold assumption? The prayer assumes that Christ himself will call you. When? How? For what purpose? Well, who knows? But he will. And probably already has for each of us here, and not for the last time, I pray. What we ask God for is not the grace to be called, but the grace to say yes.

The Bible among other things is a treasure trove of stories of God calling to us. Actually, if you think about it, most of the Bible bears witness to all those times and places where God calls to one of us and we hear it, and something happens. The details of what God is calling us to do or say is usually a little fuzzy: go to the place I will show you, God says to Abraham; tell Pharoah to let my people go, God says to Moses; you’re going to conceive and bear within you the Holy One of God, God says to Mary. And in one way or another, every time God calls one of us, our hearts are broken by how big the love is that calls us: a love that calls us out of our world and into his, from our way of seeing things, to God’s ways of seeing things, and what God cares for become our cares, too.

For the Prayers of the People today, we’ll use a set of prayers that remember and thank God for all the great families in the household of Christian faith that started somehow, some way with God calling someone, and the breaking open of a heart by love. And I promise you, not one of them set out to create a new denomination. Luther did not set out to make Lutherans. Calvin did not answer a call to create Presbyterians. Wesley’s call was not to form the Methodists. William Seymour was not called to create the Pentecostal movement out of a warehouse revival on Azusa Street in Los Angeles in April of 1906. An Albanian girl named Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu never planned to become a saint named Mother Teresa when God called her. For all of them, there was a day and a place when God called them to love what he loves, to care for what he cares for, to heal and mend something precious to God, and their hearts were broken open.

And because it’s easy to think that God only calls these big important people, remember Moses at the time God called was on the run from the law, and Mary was a country girl in first-century Palestine whose unwed pregnancy was as hard to explain as you can imagine, and William Seymour’s father lived in slavery. So just in case you think God only calls the big important people, I want to tell you a story. It’s possible you’ve heard it before or some version of it. Most of us have a few stories like this that God has given us that are our spiritual North Stars, experiences of grace through which God is still speaking, still healing, still strengthening us, still picking us up when we’ve fallen. They are like the Holy Scriptures written on our lives that God gives us to read again and again. This is one of mine.

Over spring break in 1993, I went with a group of kids from The University of the South in Sewanee on a mission trip to Kingston, Jamaica. These kids were the best and the brightest. They came from the first families of Savannah and Memphis and Dallas and Charleston. They were smart, faithful, and were probably bound for careers in medicine or law or finance. They sang in the All Saints Chapel choir or did community work down the mountain or mentored underclassmen. They were really good kids. I was a seminarian at Sewanee and went as their chaplain. We’d been meeting twice a month for months to get ourselves prepared and to learn how to work as a team. There were three different communities we were going to serve while we were there. One was a school, one was the Missionaries of Charity house, and one was a community in nearby Riverton City.

Riverton City is just outside Kingston. It’s not actually a city. What it is is the city dump. And it’s a place where at that time about 5,000 people lived. Somehow, in the middle of the trash heaps they’d cleared out a large open space and built a school and a community center. We went there to lead a vacation Bible school for four or five days. We taught Bible stories and sang songs; we did artwork and played games. But mostly each of us walked around with little kids draped all over us, carrying little ones on our hips and slightly bigger ones piggy-back or on our shoulders. I don’t know how it was possible in that place, but those children were filled with as much joy and mischief, as much wonder and silliness as any other kids anywhere.

One of the kids from Sewanee, a young woman named Sarah, is the point of this story. She was a part of the group but not really. She hung around the edges, and I only really remember her talking one time. She was with us, but she kept herself to herself mostly. She was one of the kids who went to Riverton City. Something happened to her there. She came alive. Literally she came alive.

One afternoon after lunch, we were all laying around in the community center. It was nap time and there were these clusters of children and our kids just flopped out on the ground. Sarah was sitting on the ground, leaned against a plywood wall. There were three little girls lying on her asleep, on her legs on her lap on her chest. A fourth girl was combing Sarah’s hair and whispering in her ear from time to time. Sarah saw me looking at them. And she looked at the girl on her legs and the one on her lap and the one on her chest and the one beside her combing her hair. And then she looked up and mouthed the words, Thank you! And then she smiled such a smile and I thought, ‘Oh, there you are!’ She had found herself. It’s like it was the first time I’d ever really seen her. Where before she’d stayed back, kept her cards closer to her vest, there she was, fully present, alive as alive can be.

We came home maybe a week later, back to school, back to our regular lives. Maybe a week after we’d gotten back I was crossing the grounds near All Saints Chapel and I heard someone shouting, Hey! really loudly. I looked around and saw Sarah storming towards me. She was furious. Her shouting made other people stop and look to see what was going on. She stormed up to me and shouted, “You have got to tell me something!”

I said, “Sarah, what’s going on?”

“What’s going on?! I want you to tell me when I will stop hurting! All I can think about is those little girls who I left behind living in a dump, a literal garbage dump, and look at us here! When am I going to stop hurting? All I want to do is sell all my clothes and shoes and my stupid BMW that my dad just bought for me one day and everything else and give it all to those girls! Like Sessee who is smarter and better than any of us but lives in a dump. When am I going to stop hurting?!”

The thank you she had whispered at Riverton City for those girls where she found herself and the breaking heart always go together, because that’s what God’s holy love does for us.

The Lord had called to her in Riverton City, and without quite knowing what she was signing up for, she had already been given grace to say yes, and yes with her whole heart. She had been taken out of her world and into God’s where what God cares for were now hers to care for.

When Jesus calls us, because that’s what he does, he calls us to a life like his. Which even when it breaks your heart is still your heart’s desire. Follow me, Jesus says. When he calls, Lord, give us grace to say yes. Amen.

The Rev. David H. May