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Called Again, and Again, and Again – 9/18/2016

“Mr. Watson, come here – I want to see you.” History records these as the words of the first telephone call. A one-way message sent from device’s inventor, Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant, Thomas Watson, who was working in a different room of the same building. And the story goes that this sentence was not carefully formed or pre-planned with an eye towards its historical import. Instead, it was a spontaneous and somewhat desperate utterance, prompted when Bell had spilled some acid in his laboratory. Which means that the first call made on the original telephone – the archaic ancestor of that sleek device you most likely have right now in your pocket or your purse – was a cry for help. And that’s what brings us together, this Sunday and every Sunday – but, wait. I should explain a little bit more first.

My message to you this morning is the first in a ten-part series which will be spread across this church-year, from now until June, examining each of ten different sections of our congregation’s liturgy: the elements that together make up our Sunday-morning worship. Today, we begin with the Call to Worship. Why do we do it, each week? What purpose is served by my coming down off of the chancel and opening our order of events with some strange story or odd anecdote?

The answer, at its base, is a rather simple one. Some years ago during my annual Question and Answer sermon, I was asked about this and I explained things with a rather violent metaphor; after the service one of you came up to me and wisely offered something more palatable to replace it with. So here is the improved version: The service begins by tilling the soil, and eventually progresses to the point of planting seeds in the earth. You may think of the Call to Worship, then, as the moment when the plow begins to dig away at the dirt in earnest.

Each of the great prophets has some first transcendent moment, signifying the beginning of their intimate relationship with the Divine, and the start of their particular work trying to reorder the world according to what is right and just. Moses, you probably remember, has his encounter with the burning bush, wreathed in flame but never consumed by it. The voice from the bush gives Moses his mission – to liberate his people from slavery – but its first instruction is much more immediate. Moses is told by the bush to take off his sandals, for he is standing on holy ground. Even the beginning has a beginning, the preparation that comes before he even takes on the mantle of prophecy.

It’s a little less iconic these days, but the teacher Jesus has a moment like this as well. In the Gospels According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the story is told that Jesus went to the Jordan river, to be anointed with water by John the Baptist, a prophet who lived in the wilderness and called on the people of the cities and villages to repent from their unjust ways. At the moment of his baptism, the three stories describe a dove descending from the sky, and a voice from on high announcing its pleasure with Jesus. The Christian Bible doesn’t really present any direct account of Jesus’ internal life, nor does it offer stories in which he argues with God – something of a major theme for other leading biblical figures like Abraham and Moses. This is what allows for the common orthodox interpretation of Jesus – incapable of being surprised or uncertain, because he is a being who exists beyond time. But I find the more human interpretation of the teacher far more compelling, in which he would be shocked by the sudden appearance of the dove and the voice, right along with John and the other spectators, just as awe-struck and disoriented as Moses had been by the burning bush.

In the story of Muhammad’s call as a prophet, he was alone, just like Moses. He had gone up into a cave in the mountainside above his city in order to pray and reflect. And then, the story goes that the angel Jabreel – Gabriel – appeared to him and showed him a few lines of text written in the sky out of flame. “Read” Jabreel commanded. Muhammad wanted to comply, but he literally could not; like most people in his place and time, he was illiterate. The angel shook him and commanded him again and again, Jabreel could not make Muhammad read what he could not read. So eventually, instead, the angel spoke words and Muhammad recited dutifully the first lines of the message entrusted to him: “Bismilllah al-Rahman, al-Rahim…”

Muhammad’s story includes an element that those of Moses and Jesus and most of the other big names leave out: the immediate aftermath of a prophet’s call. Muhammad comes down from the mountain shaken and disturbed by what he has experienced. It was profound, but also frightening, and when he sees his wife, Khadija, he tells her all that has happened and confesses his fear to her. He cannot imagine why a relatively unimportant man, such as him, should be chosen by God for a prophet and so he worries that his senses are false, or that some evil force is trying to deceive him. Khadija, however, listens to her husband’s story and believes him, and she offers reassurance, reminding him that he is a good and respected neighbor who deals justly in business and upholds his responsibilities to family. He seems a very wise choice for a prophet to her. It is for this reason that Khadija is credited as the first Muslim; she fully believed in and embraced the revelation that came to Muhammad, even before he did.

While these three episodes are ancient stories about singular individuals, their calls to prophecy share with our Call to Worship a sense of disruption. The ordinary, the familiar, and mundane are upended by something luminous. This is what the Call to Worship exists for: to call us out of our everyday, unexamined lives and into a different form of engagement with the world. Rather than awe and mystery intruding into the familiar – a common way of looking at calling stories – I would say that we, like every spiritual seeker who came before us in human history, simply have to be woken up to the wonder and majesty which already suffuse the world, but which we spend most of lives distracted from. The dove is always descending, the sky is always filled with words of flame, the bush is always burning – its just that we are only occasionally capable of noticing.

In his poem, “Manifesto: the Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” Wendell Berry writes about the numbing and dangerous nature of the prevailing order of things, and our duty to step outside it, to rail against it, and to try to see it change for the better.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,

vacation with pay. Want more

of everything ready-made. Be afraid

to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.

Not even your future will be a mystery

any more. Your mind will be punched in a card

and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something

they will call you. When they want you

to die for profit they will let you know.

 

So, friends, every day do something

that won’t compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace

the flag. Hope to live in that free

republic for which it stands.

Give your approval to all you cannot

understand. Praise ignorance, for what man

has not encountered he has not destroyed.

 

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested

when they have rotted into the mold.

Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

 

Put your faith in the two inches of humus

that will build under the trees

every thousand years.

Listen to carrion – put your ear

close, and hear the faint chattering

of the songs that are to come.

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.

Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful

though you have considered all the facts.

So long as women do not go cheap

for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy

a woman satisfied to bear a child?

Will this disturb the sleep

of a woman near to giving birth?

 

Go with your love to the fields.

Lie down in the shade. Rest your head

in her lap. Swear allegiance

to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos

can predict the motions of your mind,

lose it. Leave it as a sign

to mark the false trail, the way

you didn’t go. Be like the fox

who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction.

Practice resurrection.

 

Yet, despite Wendell Berry’s matter-of-fact counsel, stepping out the conventional is rarely easy. The discipline of a spiritual practice can – somewhat ironically – help to overcome the gravity of the way things are. But it is still difficult, if not impossible, to break free of sheer practicality by will alone. For most of us, most of the time, we need some stimulus to jolt us out of the rut of the familiar.

Kurt Vonnegut, in the made of language of his invented religion of Bokononism, used the term ‘vin-dit’ as a name for an experience which is sudden, jarring, and odd in just the right way to push the person who has it into a sense of disorienting awe. When the protagonist in his novel, Cat’s Cradle has such a vin-dit, he describes it this way: “The room seemed to tip, and its walls and ceiling and floor were transformed momentarily into the mouths of many tunnels—tunnels leading in all directions through time. I had a Bokononist vision of the unity in every second of all time and all wandering mankind, all wandering womankind, all wandering children.” In that particular vin-dit involved a bizarre coincidence with a stone angel from a hundred years ago that was ordered but never paid for. Obviously, that level of individualized-service is not possible, gathered to guarantee, gathered together, here, on a Sunday morning. But that is the kind of experience we’re striving for.

The poet Oriah Mountain Dreamer writes about listening and waiting for that calling to come,

I have heard it all my life,

A voice calling a name I recognized as my own.

Sometimes it comes as a soft-bellied whisper.

Sometimes it holds an edge of urgency.

But always it says: Wake up my love. You are walking asleep.

There’s no safety in that!

Remember what you are and let this knowing

take you home to the Beloved with every breath.

Hold tenderly who you are and let a deeper knowing

colour the shape of your humanness.

There is no where to go. What you are looking for is right here.

Open the fist clenched in wanting and see what you already hold in your hand.

There is no waiting for something to happen,

no point in the future to get to.

All you have ever longed for is here in this moment, right now.

You are wearing yourself out with all this searching.

Come home and rest.

How much longer can you live like this?

Your hungry spirit is gaunt, your heart stumbles. All this trying.

Give it up!

Let yourself be one of the God-mad,

faithful only to the Beauty you are.

Let the Lover pull you to your feet and hold you close,

dancing even when fear urges you to sit this one out.

Remember- there is one word you are here to say with your whole being.

When it finds you, give your life to it. Don’t be tight-lipped and stingy.

Spend yourself completely on the saying.

Be one word in this great love poem we are writing together.

 

Which brings me back around to Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson. As I said at the beginning, the first phone call was a cry for help, that’s the same thing that brings us together, this Sunday and every Sunday. Not because that’s what the Call to Worship is, but because that’s what the Call to Worship awakens us to: the need for help, inside ourselves, and the people around us, and the very earth itself. We wake up on a Sunday morning, and we come to this place, so that we can wake up for a second time. And we answer the Call, each Sunday, by greeting each other, because now we are a little more ready to live together in spiritual community. Now we are ready to help each other, and ourselves.

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First Parish Church

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Beverly, MA 01915

978-922-3968

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