“Better Call Saul”

April 10, 2016

 

Acts 9:1-9

 

I recently heard another minister speak of what she called “that moment of horror” that comes as she waits for a response after she tells someone that she is a minister.

What will they think?

How will they react?

What will they say?

It’s an uneasy feeling known by many of us who are clergy. The conversation was going so well and then someone casually asks, “So, what do you do?”

How did we get into this situation in which what we do is so often a source of awkwardness, leaving us wondering, “What’s going to happen when they find out that I’m a minister?”

The horror.

Sometimes people will ask me, “When did you know that you wanted to be a minister.” There are times when I would like to answer: “Well, certainly last week I wasn’t too sure; but when I woke up this morning it seemed like a good idea.” This, I think, is why on one occasion when someone learned of my profession, they said, somewhat incredulously, that I was “too sarcastic to be a minister.”

We clergy often place the blame for this embarrassing career decision on God.

In his memoir Brother to a Dragonfly, the late Will Campbell, a white Baptist minister in the South who was a strong supporter of civil rights in the sixties and seventies, told of hunting with Thad Garner, an older mentor whom Campbell regarded as “the most profane man” he’d ever known, and asking him: “Thad, why did you ever decide to be a Baptist preacher?” [Garner] looked puzzled and not just a little hurt. He pondered my question for a long time,” Campbell wrote, “sighting and squinting down the barrel of his shotgun. Finally he looked me straight in the eye and answered my question: ‘’Cause I was called, you fool!’”

Actually, Garner’s language was a little more colorful, but I’m speaking from a pulpit and without a gun.

Ministers love that story.

I was called.

I had no choice.

It’s not my fault. Blame the Creator of the Universe, the Lord God Almighty.

Now here’s the surprising thing about this line of defense: it has some validity—and I’ll come back to that.

This thing we speak of as a “call”—what is it? A prompting of the heart? A sense of certainty wrapped up in great doubt? An assurance that you are doing what you are supposed to be doing; doing what fits you better than anything else?

Certainly for myself and those I know it has nothing to do with visions or voices. And yet such stories help us in thinking through the mysterious ways of the God who calls, who speaks to the heart of each one of us.

For a few minutes I want to consider the reality that God does do the most outrageous things; God does call the most unlikely people.

Moses is tending his flock, minding his own business, when he sees what looks to be a bush on fire, but not consumed. And out of that bright burning, a voice comes to him: “Moses, Moses.”

After the descendants of Abraham and Sarah had been slaves in Egypt for over four hundred years, the Book of Exodus says: “Out of the slavery their cry rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant…God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”

And noticing the Israelites, God does something outrageous. Needing to confront the powerful leader of a powerful nation, needing someone who will speak boldly and lead wisely, God decides: “Better call Moses.”

Moses, a hothead who, while raised in the house of Pharaoh, had fled to the hinterlands after killing an Egyptian. Moses, who is certain that the Hebrew people will not follow him and will not believe that he speaks for the God of their ancestors. Moses, who by his own admission is “slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

God calls the most unlikely people.

As the early Christians are facing various threats to their existence from both outside and inside their communities, when God needs someone to be, as the Book of Acts puts it, “an instrument…to bring God’s name before the Gentiles and kings,” God decides: “Better call Saul.”

Saul, a devoutly religious man whose zeal makes him what we might consider a religious fanatic; Saul, who is “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord:” Saul, who is on his way to Damascus to capture and bind any followers of the Way that he can find.

The author of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts always leans toward the spectacular, writing of heavenly hosts singing at the birth of Jesus, of the Spirit of God coming like wind and fire at Pentecost. And in this story that borrows from Old Testament accounts of the call of God, we see Saul, blinded by a light, falling to the ground and hearing a voice that must have sounded a lot like the voice that called “Moses, Moses,” this time saying: “Saul, Saul.”

Incredible.

God does the most outrageous things.

God calls the most unlikely people.

Now, I realize that you did not come here this morning to hear about me and my life, or even—let’s be honest—to hear about Moses or Saul.

You came here thinking about your own life, your own passions, your own work—whether it is paid or unpaid. You came here thinking about the things that are important to you. This is to say, in one way or another you came here this morning thinking about your call.

Yes, like the title character in the TV show, Better Call Saul, you probably recognize that even though you might be less hypocritical than those you associate with, your life isn’t perfect, you might be filled with regret, or your “morals and ambitions often clash.” Still, you might be just the person to call. You might be just the unlikely person needed.

And, yes, if you want, you, too, can put the blame on the living God for the particular and peculiar life in which you find yourself.

After all, for most of us—maybe all of us—life has not gone as planned. Indeed as John Lennon suggested, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”

Yes, sometimes we do just what we planned to do. We developed just the skills we wanted to. Or we find ourselves in unexpected situations and places, using our abilities, our gifts in unplanned ways. Either way, we find that we have been called.

Faith tells us that God calls each one of us.

Our tradition speaks of God's speaking. And in doing so, our faith offers a different message than we usually hear.

Certainly most of the messages that we hear—loud and clear—tell us that we live an uncalled life.

            That there will be no intrusions into our ordinary lives by the Holy.

                        That we can go on our way, doing as we please and God will not disrupt us.

                                    That in times of despair or weakness or indecision we are on our own.

Remember the title of the James Baldwin book? Nobody Knows My Name. In a world in which we are more and more anonymous, more and more a number, it often seems like he might be right.

But in scripture we encounter again and again the God who speaks—and calls us by name.

There is good news here.

In spite of the great loneliness that so many people feel,

            in spite of the crushing isolation of modern life,

Someone does know your name—and calls to you.

Certainly we listen with a very human ear. What we hear is often faint or garbled.

Still, when we stop to listen with the ear of faith, we can hear the divine voice that calls each one of us by name.

The God who calls is a passionate God.

This is not One who stands off, unmoved by our human condition. This is a Creator who is vitally interested in the creature. This is a God who, out of deep compassion, calls us to lives that are fruitful and effective. This is a God who wants the best for us.

Keep listening. God's action in the world depends on us.

Moses stands listening and hears the voice of God: "Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring forth my people."

Saul looks up from the ground listening and hears: “Get up and you will be told what to do.”

Moses is not changed, he is called.

Saul is not converted, he is called.

God only calls us to be who we are. By God's gift, our deepest identity is not really to be or to do anything but love. We are, each one of us, the uniquely individual bearer of God's love.

So God calls each one of us—not simply to some activity or to some particular form of employment but to a way of life. This is a way of life suited to who you are, because above all, it is a call to be yourself, the unique individual created in God's image that you are.

God calls out the best in us. And that gives us some idea of what the church is to be—a community of people calling out the best in each other, a community of people supporting each other to live lives of faith, virtue, knowledge, mutual affection, and love.

God needs us in order to act in the world. And by saying that, I’m not just offering the old chestnut that we are the hands and feet of God, acting out some purpose whether we like it or not. God's purposes are fulfilled as each one of us fully lives out who we are. We are co-creators, working with God to create the good.

And, of course, God’s call naturally meets with human resistance.

What was the name of the play? Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God. Probably so. But from Moses onward, the scriptures tell of people arguing with God—and sometimes winning. You even get the sense that God actually enjoys this—enjoys hearing our doubts, our misgivings, our frustrations with and anger toward the Almighty. At least then the relationship seems real.

It continues to this day and we confess: “You, O God, call, but we don't listen. We walk away.”

Yes, our arms are too short to box with God. But still, we hear the promise: “I will be with you.” I will be with you as you live out your calling. I will be with you as you become whom you are called to be.

If that is the case,

            there is strength in the place where we are weak,

                        there is courage at the times when we are fearful,

                                    there is love made possible when we would hate.

But you know that, don’t you? You’ve experienced that.

It is the God of infinite possibilities who calls us into a life filled with choices and chances, filled with options and opportunity.

The voice that calls is one voice—

these days usually speaking softly,

            inviting us to join in the conversation,

            inviting us to follow on the way that leads to life, on the way that is life.

Until we stop to listen,

            we will never become all that we are meant to be.

            We will never find what we're looking for.

            We will not be aware that the ground we stand on is holy, that the neighbor whom we see is in the image of the one who calls us.

And when we listen we will gain knowledge of ourselves and knowledge of God. We will gain the wisdom that comes from knowing ourselves in conversation with our creator who calls.

We hear, once more, the Spirit's refrain: Trust God and begin again.