Yesterday was a long day. There was church in the morning, then a brief period of downtime, finally I was off to the neighboring UCC congregation for the ordination of the now-Reverend Matthew Carriker, the Assistant Minister for Religious Education at the Eliot Church, my congregation. The theme of the day for both these events, was "call" in the theological sense. More specifically this passage from Ephesians Chapter 4, "I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing one another in love."
Honestly this gave me a bit of trouble. What I struggled with had little to do with the sermon I wrote for the morning or the charge to the congregation that I wrote for the afternoon. My task in both cases was to remind people that all people are called to something greater than stuff, status, and survival. Perhaps I will post my notes later, but answering a higher call has been a bit of a theme over the past few weeks and I pretty much knew what I wanted to say, just not how I wanted to say it.
However, what I found the most difficult was the part of my preparation process where I think about what the idea of call means to me. I am a minister. It is part of my job to be intentional about discernment. In fact, as of Friday I will be taking the first leg of my sabbatical. Looking into the life of faith and service that I committed myself to at my own ordination is naturally a part of this process. So in some sense I had to preach to myself this week. It is hard to hear this call with humility, gentleness, and peace when there is so much going on around us.
One thing that has helped me is a painting. It was apparently done in 1481 (though I have seen other dates) by Hans Memling and now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. One of the excellent side effects of Norm's homeschooling is that I get to spend a couple of hours at the MFA every week while he takes an art class with other homeschoolers. The first session I found the picture in question tucked away in a corner, next to much larger, more "magnificent" works. I know I have seen it before, but with no distractions, I was able to spend some time with it. I actually got to read the card! Memling's painting is in its original frame (which is unusual) and the way it is done makes it seem that Jesus' left hand is resting on its lower edge. For all the world it appears as if he is trying to peer out at us, to make contact through a very small window. The painting is not large and Jesus looks so "normal" (it isn't one of those hairy-guy-in-bathrobe images) I cannot help but imagine that my reaction is not unusual.
There must be hundred of years worth of viewers who have felt the same facing the countless number of walls that this painting has hung on over the course of time. I think it serves as a useful metaphor for the religious life in the 21st Century. We are all called. If you are a Christian, it is usually Jesus who does the calling. However, the window is small and the demands on our time are great. It is a gift and a blessing but so many of us just don't have the energy to pick that gift up. We do not accept the blessing. We are too busy running through the habitrail (a popular image at Eliot thanks a sermon I gave a couple weeks ago).
We have tried to escape and sometimes think we are making progress. But we cannot get out. Jesus looks through the window at us, beckoning, hoping to get noticed. However, we run right by on the way to swimming lessons, youth football, and the grocery store. We squeeze in more time at work. We work hard at having a good time during our time off. They all seem more important to us somehow. And so the rat race, the habitrail wins again.
Burbanian society does its best to knock us out of wack. It likes us to keep our place in elaborate social layers that make it most convenient when it comes to buying and selling. It is also convenient in that it keeps us apart. We measure the state of the world based on our own needs. It makes us think that worldly success is a sign of true faith. It makes the actual life of faith seem silly and abstract. It makes us ignore our true call to help each other and to stand up for those who live on the margins. This is as true for liberals and the unchurched as it is for those prosperity gospel congregations we rightly criticize. The fact is, the church is on the margins, too. People who care about these things are also marginalized. It is time to meet the neighbors.
Here is the painting
Here is the habitrail