Dr. Anne M. Cameron
January 15, 2012
Lake Highlands Presbyterian Church
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea-for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. 1
How many of you made New Year's Resolutions? How many of you have kept them? If you are like me, you lasted about a week---maybe two, and then the old habit came slowly creeping back. You intended to make a 365 day change, but it didn't even last a whole month.
You may wonder what today's scriptures have to do with New Year's resolutions. They are not about sticking to a low carb diet, improving your relationship with your spouse, or lowering your cholesterol. No, these scriptures desdribe a total change in life orientation. 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. These scriptures are about giving up everything that has gone before, and starting in an entirely new direction. These are stories of obedience to God's call, and, in a sense, they are stories about the beginning of vocation, too.
Now I'm going to tell you a story about a different sort of call than the one by the lakeside. Raymond and Harold MacPheron were a couple of crusty old bachelor farmers. The MacPherons were set in their ways. They had never married; they worked a large family farm on the bleak Midwestern plains, seventeen miles from the nearest small town. They mostly raised cattle. Their parents had been killed in a car accident when they were teenagers. Like the worn and peeling farm house in which they lived, there wasn't much color in their lives, not too much to get excited about. Day after day there was the drudgery of caring for farm animals, the physical labor of constant repairs and daily chores. After all those decades alone, there wasn't much joy. The men shared a tacit understanding that this was their lot in life. All this was about to change.
Victoria Roubideaux was seventeen years old and pregnant, kicked out of her house by her mother, full of life with nowhere to go. No one wanted her around; the father of her child didn't even know she was pregnant. She had no earthly idea of where she might go, or what she might do.
The down-to-earth novel Plainsong by Kent Haruf is a compelling story of a small town community. But the story of the old MacPherons and the young Victoria is the one I want to tell today, as it brings to mind a particular way of understanding vocation and of listening to call.
This simple yet moving story makes us think---there might just be more to God's call than we had thought. This story illustrates one way God might call us. This way might seem simple, but then when Jesus told Simon and Andrew to come, that was simple, too. The way God calls Harold and Raymond is one most of us can relate to. "Hey, Joe, I need some help installing this new system. Lisa, I have a big favor to ask." Do you see a bunch of angels? Do you hear trumpets blasting? No Steven Spielberg moments there.
This kind of call seems so quiet and ordinary we may not even realize we are being called. A call that at first, doesn't seem like a miracle. A call that at first, seems completely ridiculous and out of the question. A call that may happen, as it did for Andrew and Simon, James and John, completely out of the blue, with no forewarning, no job preparation, nothing.
In the novel Plainsong, Maggie Jones, a high school counselor, serves as a kind of go-between, running back and forth between the crotchety, silent MacPherons and the nervous young Victoria. Maggie is an odd sort of matchmaker. Or better yet, Maggie is the quiet voice of one calling the MacPherons, who had something to give. Maggie is also the voice of one summoning Victoria, who is in great need. Until the MacPhersons met Victoria, they really had no purpose in their life, nothing that could even remotely be called a vocation.
Frederick Beuchner once defined vocation as the place where the world's great need and your deep gladness meet. Victoria was in deepest need. And the MacPheron brothers were about to discover a deep well of joy.
Maggie Jones drives out to the MacPherons' farm one cold Saturday afternoon, "I came out here to ask you a favor. . .There is a girl I know who needs some help. . . She's a good girl but she's gotten into trouble. I think you might be able to help her. I would like you to consider it and let me know."
Let's see, I do not hear a heavenly chorus here. No trembling, no sky splitting open, no great voice from the sky. What I hear is something ordinary, something happening in the ordinary lives of folk who have been minding their own business. "Come and follow me. I am going to teach you how to fish for a different kind of catch." And yet it is God calling, we come to know. "Give a girl a chance."
What I see here is how God's calls reaches into the normal arena of everyday life. How God's call speaks through normal channels of communication.
"Leave your father and come with me. I want you to do something improbable. Leave your day job, give it up, and come along with me," Jesus said to two simple fishermen brothers.
And Maggie says to simple farmer brothers: "I want you to do something improbable. . . I want you to think of taking this girl in. Of letting her live with you."
"You're fooling," Harold said.
"No, I am not fooling."
"Oh, I know it sounds crazy. I suppose it is crazy. I don't know. I don't even care. But that girl needs somebody and I'm ready to take desperate measures. She needs a home for these months. And you. . .you old solitary [buggers] need somebody, too. Somebody or something besides an old red cow to worry over. Well, look at you. You're going to die someday without ever having had enough trouble in your life. Not the right kind, anyway. This is your chance." (quotes from pp. 107-110, Plainsong, by Kent Haruf).
Now I don't suppose Harold and Raymond were too excited about this high school counselor sitting on one of the two free chairs in their living room. As a matter of fact, they argue about taking Victoria in. Raymond has to talk about it.
This is where the Plainsong story differs from the scripture account we just heard. Because when Jesus is at the lakeside, according to Mark, they just came. They heard him, and they obeyed. They didn't even know who he was, but something compelled them to come anyway. Obedience came first; faith came second. It happens fast in Mark; there is no time to waste. Jesus doesn't even have to say, "Don't think so much! Don't worry, just dive in!" They just do, and their lives are never, ever the same. They could have turned away. They could have simply thought he was crazy. Why leave perfectly good fishing nets?
The funny thing is, even though Maggie's request did sound pretty ordinary, Maggie herself knew it was crazy. At some level, the MacPherons also knew it was crazy. Yet despite all this craziness, like Peter and Andrew and James and John and all the rest of the twelve, the old MacPheron brothers said "yes" to the whole crazy thing.
And in saying "yes," Harold and Raymond end up changing their whole life. Not just for a moment, but 365 days a year. In saying "yes" to the ordinary question, they answer God's call. In the end, they find a vocation, something important to live for, something beyond themselves. They discover a place where Victoria's great need meets their deep gladness.
After he agrees to take Victoria in, Harold says to Raymond, "And I'll say one thing more. This ain't going to be no gosh darn Sunday school picnic." And he is right (p. 113).
Hearing God's call can be terrifying, even when it comes in a small whisper or in the voice of a child. Standing in the presence of God should make anyone shake. Don't worry if you feel resistant. Who wouldn't?
Obeying God's call can be terrifying, even when you know he is giving you your heart's desire, even when the road ahead seems to have been paved just for you.
Living God's call is our vocation. It won't be a picnic all the time, but in it we find happiness, joy, and life.
Sometimes what we are looking for is a huge wondrous sign from God, when what we should be seeing is the wonder that is already part of our lives.
Sometimes we find ourselves waiting to respond to God's call, thinking God isn't calling loudly enough or spectacularly enough. So we doubt the call we do hear, and we are immobilized. We wait, and do nothing.
Sometimes we see the call as big as a road sign in front of us---as big as the nose on our face, and we just plain ignore it.
Sometimes we think---if only I could have a private Steven Spielberg moment---an assurance that it really is Jesus, or God. Then I would go, too, straight away, immediately, no questions asked. We would go, even when we are sure it's not going to be a gosh darn Sunday school picnic.
Hearing God's call, Harold and Raymond and Victoria welcome a baby girl into their home and become an unlikely family, involved in all the everyday tasks of caring for the miracle of new life. Everyday tasks, infused with a sense of duty and dignity, become a calling. And we are to answer the calling, to obey, and to say, "Here I am Lord. Right here, right now."