The Grace of Being Called
[For an audio file of this sermon, click here]
During my first week away at college, the Resident Advisor in my dorm organized a get-to-know-you activity for all the young women in my section. There were snacks, and games, and there was also an activity that required us all to write down our “most embarrassing moment.” The RA then read these descriptions out loud and we had to figure out the dorm mate to whom each story belonged.
It was a brilliant way to build community. Not only did it get us laughing together, but it was also a very effective way to build an appropriate level of vulnerability among a group of strangers who were all suddenly living together in fairly close quarters. It required us to let go – at least to a moderate degree – of our efforts to cultivate an image, to create an airbrushed version of ourselves to be admired, but not really known.
And we needed to open ourselves to being known. We were all seventeen or eighteen-year-olds, away from our families for the first time, away from the people who knew us and loved us for who we really were. And in that vacuum, we needed a community that would see us – in all the truth of our imperfections – and welcome us with laughter, and with their own stories of mild humiliation to make us feel less alone. There is a deep power unleashed when we feel “seen” in our vulnerability – in our stories of making fools of ourselves – and when we feel welcomed anyway.
Now, confessing our “most embarrassing moments” is a fairly safe level of vulnerability. Generally, those kinds of stories generate chagrin, but not deep shame. They encourage us to be real, without assaulting our sense of self-worth. There is a much more raw and exposed level of vulnerability at play in the three call stories we heard today. Each of these stories involves a cry of confession about unworthiness.
When the prophet Isaiah’s vision transports him into the throne room of God to witness God’s overwhelming glory, he cries out “woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” (Isaiah 6:5)
In the apostle Paul’s summary of the authority of the witnesses who have called his readers into faith, he describes himself as “the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (1 Cor. 15:9).
And when Peter confronts the mixed danger and blessing of Jesus’ power, he falls to his knees and says to Jesus “go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8).
The exposure, and vulnerability, and even shame in these stories is in response to being confronted by the Divine, forced to face the utter impossibility of self-satisfaction in the presence of the only Perfect One.
There’s no laughter in these stories, no shared embarrassment… but there is a parallel with my freshman dorm experience, because these stories describe moments of vulnerable honesty that create new possibility. They are moments when Isaiah, and Paul, and Peter aren’t trying to pretend like they have it all together. They are moments of confession. And those confessions change them. Those confession open them up to something new that changes the course (not of just of their college dorm experience), but that radically changes the course of their lives.
Confession opens the door for grace.
On the one hand, the link between confession and grace is obvious right? It’s the formula we rehearse at the beginning of almost every Sunday morning worship: our liturgy starts with the confession and forgiveness. We speak the truth of our failures together as a community, naming what we have done and what we have left undone that falls short of God’s will for our lives and for the world. And in response, we receive the assurance of grace. The words of absolution that tell us “you are forgiven.”
But on the other hand, that formula of confession and forgiveness is not quite the storyline in today’s readings. Luther Seminary professor Rolf Jacobson tells an anecdote about a collaborative project he was working on dealing with today’s gospel. His interpretation of the story for that project centered the idea of sin and forgiveness. It’s a solidly Lutheran interpretation, but one of his non-Lutheran colleagues challenged him by pointing out that, actually, there is no word of forgiveness in the gospel story.
Peter confesses his sin – he calls himself a “sinful man” – but the formula isn’t completed. Jesus never pronounces “your sins are forgiven.”
It’s the same thing with Paul. The account of his call in Acts 9 (which he alludes to in today’s epistle) involves him confronting his sin in persecuting the church, but there are no words of absolution for him.
The Isaiah story perhaps comes closest: a coal from God’s holy altar is touched to Isaiah’s unclean lips to purify them, but the point of that action is not just to comfort Isaiah with the assurance of his forgiveness… it’s to equip him to speak the word God gives him.
In each of these stories what comes after the confession is not a word of forgiveness…. It is a word of CALLNG.
The grace in these stories is not a comforting word of reassurance that God doesn’t hold our sins against us. Rather the grace in these stories is the comforting evidence that God doesn’t see sin as disqualifying to share in God’s work. The place we find grace after confession is in the invitation, or more than that the expectation, that once we confront the truth about ourselves… the truth that we don’t have any claim to holiness, that we can’t stand in the strength of our own purity and righteousness…. Once we make that confession, God essentially says. “Right! Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I have a job for you.”
I’m not saying that God doesn’t forgive sins. God most certainly does forgive Isaiah, and Paul, and Peter… and us! I speak that truth from the font every Sunday and those words are one of the best parts of my job. What I'm saying is that God goes another step further. God also TRUST us. God CALLS us to be part of the work of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. With full awareness of our imperfections and inadequacies. In fact, that awareness seems to be a pretty essential qualification, if today’s call stories are our model.
And the pattern holds true beyond just these stories. The reluctant prophet is a bit of a trope in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Moses, Gideon, Samuel, Jeremiah, Amos, Zechariah, even Mary asks “how can this be?” The people God calls into service almost universally object, and those objections usually take the form of confession: “I’m not worthy. I’m not able.”
Some biblical scholars describe this pattern as one of “excuses,” but I think it’s actually a very necessary preparation. In order to be God’s witnesses, we have to first recognize our own incapacity, even our unworthiness. When we are called to be part of God’s work in the world, we have to recognize that the hope we are offering is NOT ourselves. It’s not the perfection of our lives. It’s the evidence, in our imperfect lives, of grace. It is the hope that the God who knows far deeper, uglier secrets than our “most embarrassing moments” has still chosen us, has touched our lips with a coal from the heavenly altar, has given us the task of catching people, has called to us in the middle of our worst mistakes and has said – “You, you’re the one I want.” Not just the prophet with a heavenly vision. Not just the apostle who led the Gentile mission. Not just the disciple whom Jesus renamed Peter, the rock on which he would build his church.
Not just them. But also you. You are called. We are all called.
And our calling is an active grace. A grace that redefines our lives. A grace that makes forgiveness real because it communicates God’s trust in us. Because, if God has called us to share in God’s work, then who are we to be concerned with our own unworthiness?
Confession leads to more than forgiveness. It leads to calling.
We experience grace also in the assurance of forgiveness, of course, but that’s not the end of the story. It’s just the preparation. It’s the putting aside of the pain we feel when we see our own failings, so that we can get to work!
Martin Luther famously taught that we are all simultaneously sinners and saints. That the truth of our failings should always be part of our consciousness, but that it should never invalidate the assurance that we are loved and redeemed and called by God.
So, my fellow sinner-saints, hear this word of grace: you are called.
Thanks be to God.
 Rolf Jacobson recounted this anecdote on the Sermon Brainwave podcast posted Feb. 2, 2019: http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1105