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“THE SUMMONED LIFE”

 

 

A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe

Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, January 8, 2012

Text:  Mark 1:4-11 – “…but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

 

 

     It all seemed so pre-ordained.  John the Baptist “appears” out of nowhere to prepare the way for someone soon to appear – someone who is so great that even John himself would not be worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. 

 

     Sure enough, the narrative continues:  “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  So orderly, so well planned out, so pre-ordained.

 

     I doubt that that’s the way it really happened.  After all, Mark was written some 40 years after Jesus’ earthly life ended.  Besides, the church says that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, so the fully human part probably wouldn’t abide with copious quantities of pre-arrangement.

 

     Sounds a bit like Calvin’s “double-predestination” to me.  Double predestination means that the future of every person in the human race has been determined beforehand, by God.  So it doesn’t matter what you do – good or bad – because your fate to be on the gold team or brown team was settled long before you were even born!

 

     Then they proof-text from Romans, where Paul says that God does stuff “to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory – including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles.”  Too bad Calvinists haven’t boned up on the new perspective on Paul.   Paul was merely saying that God invites not only Jews, but Gentiles, into the Kingdom.  So much for pre-ordination….

 

     So how is your life working out?  Has it been well planned out or is it more a case of muddling through?  David Brooks, an op-ed writer for the New York Times, has recently been interested in that question. 

 

     An acquaintance of his, Clayton Christensen, is a professor at the Harvard Business School, and has been advising his students to invest a lot of time when they are young in finding a clear purpose for their lives.

“When I was a Rhodes scholar,” he recalls, “I was in a very demanding academic program, trying to cram an extra year’s worth of work into my time at Oxford.  I decided to spend an hour every night reading, thinking, and praying about why God put me on this earth. I was conflicted about whether I could really afford to take that time away from my studies, but I stuck with it — and ultimately figured out the purpose of my life.”

     So, for Christensen, it is important to front-load your life:  once you make a decision on what you want to do with your life, all the decisions about allocating time, energy and talent will just fall into place.  When you’re done, life comes to appear as a well-designed project, carefully conceived in the beginning, reviewed and adjusted along the way and brought toward a well-rounded fruition.  I love it when a plan comes together….

     My experience has been that lives that are well planned out often result in bitter people when life doesn’t work out that way [Fred Craddock]:

*   The Oklahoma farmer, riding a mortgaged tractor, burning gas purchased on credit, moving across rented land, rearranging the dust.

*   The 47-year old woman, sitting on a hillside, drawn and confused under a green canopy furnished by the mortuary.

*   A man who runs a small grocery store.  His father ran the store for 20 years.  There aren’t any customers in the store now, and the grocer stands in the doorway, looking across the street where the finishing touches are being put on a large new supermarket.

*   A young couple, not yet 20.  They’re standing in the airport terminal, holding hands.  She’s pregnant; he’s dressed in camouflage fatigues.  They’re not talking.  When his gate is called, the young man walks toward it.  The young woman stands alone.

     David Brooks doesn’t find the well planned out life approach very convincing, either.  Life isn’t always that tidy.  So he began to think about another way, calling it, “the Summoned Life.”   In this approach, life isn’t a project to be completed; it is an unknowable landscape to be explored.  

     A 24-year-old can’t sit down and define the purpose of life in the manner of a school exercise because she is not yet deep enough into the landscape to know herself or her purpose.  That young person — or any person — can’t see into the future to know what wars, loves, diseases and chances may loom.  She may know concepts, like parenthood or old age, but she doesn’t really understand their meanings until she is engaged in them.

     Business models like that of Christensen always make choices in terms of their usefulness.  And, as far as it goes, it’s good for business.  But is it good for life?  What about commitments to family, nation, or your faith?  These commitments often defy the logic of cost and benefit, investment and return.

     If the person leading the Well-Planned Life asks, “What should I do?”  The person leading the Summoned Life asks, “What are my circumstances asking me to do?”   The person leading the Summoned Life starts with a very concrete situation:

*   I’m living in a specific year in a specific place facing specific problems and needs.

*   At this moment in my life, I am confronted with specific job opportunities and specific options.

*   The important questions are: What are these circumstances summoning me to do? What is needed in this place? What is the most useful social role before me?

     So which model was the life that Jesus lived?  I guess it depends on which piece of scripture you read.  If you read books like John, you’ll find Jesus sort of going through the motions.  Yeah, I know that I’m the only Son of God.   Yeah, I know that I’m here to save the world from their sins.  Yeah, I know that it will get me crucified, but then again, you can stand on your head for three days, even if you are dead.  Ho Hum.

     Other books, not so much.  In Paul’s letters, you have a Jesus who, in the end, is “promoted” through resurrection because of his exemplary faithfulness despite his circumstances.  In the Garden, Jesus sweats blood trying to decide whether or not to go through with his crucifixion.  Presumably, he has a choice.  That’s what made it all so hard. 

     Consider the story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew.  She changes Jesus’ whole scope of ministry.  To that point, it has been single-mindedly a ministry to his people, the Jews.  After meeting the Canaanite woman, Jesus has an epiphany and begins to include everyone.  

If that’s not living a Summoned Life, I’ll eat my hat.