“Called to Be”
Jan. 15th, 2023 (MLK)
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend is always a jumble of feelings for me. There is the soaring rhetoric of the “I Have a Dream” speech. Still so needed in our country, our world. Dreams, like the one Dr. King articulated are important to have: to call us to more than we already are, to shake us out of apathy or malaise or downright depression. That image of a better America, able to live together, side by side, hand in hand, is something I deeply believe in, and something I desperately want for my world.
But especially on this weekend, when the words of the dream are so prominent, when the images of the dreamer fill our TV screens and our minds, I painfully feel how far we still are from that mountaintop. In fact, it sometimes feels to me that we have taken a big step backward in a sick parody of the “Mother, may I” game of my youth. How is it possible that the steps we have made toward equality have spawned a backlash that has torn the veneer off of the ugly side of American life—exposing a not so small, but I still believe minority of folks who don’t get the dream, don’t want to get the dream, in fact are mad as hell and willing to fight tooth and nail to make sure the dream never comes to pass.
It makes me weep. It makes me wonder if I understand anything at all. And although I cannot claim to understand fully what Langston Hughes was capturing in his poem “Dream Deferred” because I have had many privileges in my life, I have times when I too wonder about the carnage of dreams deferred, and worry that what we thought we could be has dried up, or festered, or stinks, or sags, or explodes. I am glad that as I was googling Hughes and dreams, another one of his dream poems popped up:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
So what does God have to say to me, to us, in this time of disappointment. What does God have to say to us as a church in this difficult time of almost but not really post-pandemic, when many of us have gotten out of the habit of being together as church, and have formed new habits. When people have discovered that if we don’t do the things we were always told we had to do, that the sky doesn’t fall down, and actually, we might even like life a little better. How does church meet this moment? How do we, UPC, meet this moment?
Do we slog on, trying to get back to what was (and was that all we wanted to be?)? Do we throw up our hands and say, “Well, we gave it a good try, but it’s too hard”? Do we beat ourselves up about what we have not been able to accomplish? Do we pretend that we have it all under control?
As I read the prophet Isaiah’s words to Israel found in our reading for today, I marveled at how the message comes across thousands of years, as if Isaiah were talking to those of us living in our world today. I can imagine many of us saying to God what Isaiah reports “the servant” is thinking. Shouting from the rooftops to anyone and everyone! Hey, world, God made me and called me and gave me tools—my mouth like a sharp sword, and me like a polished arrow—and God protected me from harm, God hid me from my enemies. And God gave me a purpose, called me to be, said, You are my servant, (and in other places, you are my beloved). Through me, through my work, through my witness, God will be glorified.
(This is pretty heady stuff. And I think we can all remember a time when we felt on top of the world, when we felt like we were accomplishing the work God had called us to, when we were sure that we were indeed glorifying God—and maybe were a little proud of that as well).
That is the set-up for our speaker. That is the resume. Formed by God. Called by God. Given gifts by God. Pushed out of the nest by God. AND…something hasn’t gone as it should have. Because, the next sentence is “But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord
and my reward with my God.” In other words, I’m downcast, I’m tired. Everything I tried has failed. I’ve witnessed to the people, and they have not listened to me. I’ve talked until I’m blue in the face and no one has changed their ways. I offer my hand and it is slapped away. I have given it my all, I have spent my strength for nothing (except maybe puffing up myself in my own eyes). I know that I had the right idea. I know that God was with me, and that I shouldn’t expect anything but staying in God’s good graces—all else is worldly success.
We understand this servant don’t we? I certainly do. I can see my musing at the front of this sermon as a shadow of this argument. It is a worker coming back to the one in charge recognizing that things didn’t work out as planned. Insisting that you gave it everything, and, in shame, you have to admit that it, you, weren’t enough. You know the task was of God, and you know that you can rest in giving it back to God—for it was God’s to begin with.
Certainly this could be any one of us, at certain times in our lives. Certainly this could be almost any church, more of us in this particular time than maybe in other times. And what does God say to the servant, to us? God doesn’t say, “Ooooooh, I’m sorry, that job was just too hard for you—I’ll take it back and give you an easier one.”
God doesn’t say, “I knew it, you would never measure up. What a worthless specimen you are. You should be ashamed!” God doesn’t rant and rave, curse and debase, as so many of us might have done.
No, God says, I imagine lovingly,
(and I notice that as the prophet begins to report what God says, there is this reminding of who God is, and who God is to us, even who we have said God is at the beginning of this passage: “the one who formed me, the one who called me, and I am honored to be in the sight of God, God has become my strength),
and only after reorienting us from our failure, our screw-ups, our inability to change the world—to what is important, who we are in God’s eyes, who we were created to be, who we were called to be, and our relationship with this Creator and Caller—our strength and our stay, our rock and our refuge, Our Lord and our God, only now are we ready to hear God’s word.
And the Lord says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Did we hear God right? Did God just say, “My mistake, the job I gave you, to raise up and restore the tribes of Jacob, the survivors of Israel, it was TOO small. I’ll give you a bigger job. I call you to be a light, not just to Jacob and Israel, not just to the chosen people, who were to be blessed to be a blessing, NO, I call you to be a light to everyone, to all nations, to spread my grace and love, my salvation to the ends of the earth.”
That is what the prophet Isaiah heard God saying to God’s chosen nation, Israel, while they were in a dark period, having been exiled, having been displaced, having to contemplate rebuilding their lives, their temple, everything.
That is what the gospel writers hint at Jesus hearing God say to him as his ministry widens from the children of Israel to those who were open to hear the word—the Samaritan woman (and her village), the Syrophoenician woman and her child, the Roman centurion, lepers and possessed people and people in need, who crossed lines of ethnicity and religion. And this is exactly what Jesus says to us, “You are the light of the world” in a reading coming up from the gospel of Matthew. And, it is echoed in the great commission, also from Matthew where Jesus sends out the disciples “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…”
So let’s circle back to where we started. MLK weekend, dreams and dreams deferred, and weariness, and sadness. We might well be the ones who are saying, “What do I see for my labor? What has changed in our world? God I know the cause was right, but I’m sorry, I just have to trust that you will do what we could not.” And then there is God’s response. Maybe not what we want to hear. Maybe not what they wanted to hear in Isaiah’s time, or Jesus’ time. But God’s response all the same.
“I’m not done with you. I’m not going to let you off the hook. I gave you too little a job to do. I’ve got a bigger and better job, I’ve got a bigger and more important calling, I’ve got more dreams for you to tackle, I’m in need of you.”
It seems impossible. It is not of this world. When you don’t finish the job, when you make a mess of things, or don’t seem to move forward at all—no boss in the world is going to give you a different, more comprehensive, more important assignment. And that is the point. That is the good news. This is not of this world. This is of God’s world. And God doesn’t forget, even if we do, that God formed us, God called us, God gifted us, God sends us out, again and again and again. And us?
We need to remember who we are, we need to speak to ourselves about what is important, we need to catch hold of the dream once again, take a deep breath, plunge into the murky waters of life, and swim. God has faith in us, unbelievably as that seems. God has faith that we will use God’s gifts, we will walk in God’s paths, we will be willing to restore ourselves in green pastures, and slake our thirst beside cool rivers, and wake up each morning ready to do justice, and love mercy, and continue our walk with God.
It is a message from God that we need to hear time and time and time again. We hear it through Isaiah, we hear it through Jesus, we hear it through our other reading for today, from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. What does Paul say? “I give thanks to my God always for you…” You are special in God’s eyes. You are special in my eyes. I give thanks to my God always for you. For the grace God has given you. For the way you have been enriched in Christ Jesus, strengthened, not lacking any gift, because God is faithful—and God calls you into partnership, into work, into life, into so much more than you could ever have dreamed, because that is who you were Called to be
Children of God,
Followers of Christ,
One in the Spirit,
Believers and Builders of the Dream.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.
Say (eye to eye, heart to heart) “I give thanks to God for you.”