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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

September 15, 2013

Scriptures:  Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 5:1-11


She was the daughter of a teacher and a carpenter, raised on a farm in rural Alabama.  When she was a child, the schools were still segregated.  She and her siblings and friends would walk a long way down the dirt roads to get to school each morning, and a long way down the dirt roads to get home again each afternoon.  And every day, they would be caught in a cloud of dust when the school bus passed by, carrying the town’s white children to their school, and then home again.

Later, as an adult, she rode the city bus to and from her work in Montgomery.  One December evening, she was on her way home, seated in the “colored” section of the bus, with her lap full of parcels and bags from the errands she had run.  The bus started out empty, but as it filled up, the driver told that row of black passengers to get up and stand in the back so that a white man could sit down.

She didn’t move.

“Y’all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.”  The others moved, reluctantly.  She did not.

The driver came down the aisle and towered over her.  “Are you going to stand up?”

She looked him in the eye.  “No.”

“Well, I’m going to have you arrested.”

“You may do that.”  And he did, and she went to jail.

Years later, she reflected, “God has always given me the strength to say what is right.  I had the strength of God and my ancestors with me.”[1]  With that strength and her courage put together, she sparked the Civil Rights movement, because she heard and heeded God’s call to hold fast to her convictions, to resist unjust systems, to speak truth to power.

*          *          *

He grew up attending Methodist schools in his tiny South African village.  As a young man, he moved to Johannesburg to work as a night watchman, then became a law clerk, then attended law school himself.  The more of the apartheid society he saw, the more determined he became to change it.  “Freedom is indivisible,” he said.  “The chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them; the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.”[2]

He dove into the freedom struggle and ended up in prison.  For the next twenty-seven years, he lived in a dank concrete cell, separated from his friends and family except through rare letters and rarer visits.  When at last he was released, as apartheid was crumbling, he continued his work for freedom on behalf of all people.  “When I walked out of prison,” he said, “that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both…  For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

He proceeded not to avenge himself on the ones who had denied him his freedom for so many years, not to turn the tables so that the ones who had been on top would now be forced to the bottom, but to lead his nation through a process of Truth and Reconciliation—because he heard and heeded God’s call to care for all our sisters and brothers, to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us, to atone and to forgive and to reconcile.

*          *          *

She went to work that morning just as she always did.  She sat at her desk by the front door of an elementary school in Atlanta and began her day.  But things quickly changed from ordinary to terrifying when a young man entered the building armed with automatic weapons and ammunition.  “This is not a joke,” he said.[3]

She looked at him, and she saw a hurting, desperate young man, and she responded to him with compassion.  “I just started praying for him,” she said.  “I just started talking to him.”  When he told her he had no reason to live, she told him he did not have to die that day, and she shared some of her own story.  She told him about her struggles, about her marriage falling apart, about how she had also had times when she felt like nobody cared.  “I just explained to him that I loved him.  I didn’t know his name, I didn’t know much about him, but I did love him.”

After almost an hour, she asked him to put down his gun, and empty his pockets of bullets, and lie down on the floor with his hands behind his back, and he did.  Every child and adult got out of that school safely that day, because she heard and heeded God’s call to see the face of Jesus in everyone we meet, and to overcome evil with good.

*          *          *

They met in a bookstore while they were both in college.  It wasn’t one of those bolt-of-lightning moments, but as they got to know one another, they slowly but surely fell in love.  Through several years of graduate school and caring for aging parents, their relationship grew stronger and deeper, until they came to the natural conclusion that they were meant for each other, that they wanted to spend their lives together.[4]

They cook meals together, and watch movies together, and rake leaves together, and go on scenic drives through the countryside together.  But they can’t get married, because they live in Tennessee, and they happen to be gay.

So they’ve joined with a campaign that’s building throughout the South, and they’ve applied for a marriage license, knowing they would be denied, because they want to put a human face on what discrimination looks like, and they’re working even as we speak to extend marriage equality throughout our nation—because they’ve heard and heeded God’s call to love one another as God loves us, and to work on behalf of the ones at the margins, the ones who are mistreated by the powers that be, until every child of God has a place at the table.

*          *          *

She had graduated from seminary and worked in a variety of ministry settings.  She could read the Bible in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin.  She was a scholar of early Christian history and textual criticism.  She was on her way toward doctoral studies and a career in academia when her son was diagnosed with severe autism.[5]

Out the window went the doctorate.  Out the window went life as she knew it.  Instead of spending hours in the library, she was spending days and weeks on end trying to figure out how to communicate with this mysterious child, how to keep him safe, how to help him learn.

To keep herself from going crazy, she continued to explore biblical scholarship on the internet.  She developed a website called The Text This Week, which gathers links to sermons, essays, commentaries, art, and other resources for preachers and scholars.  What began as a personal project to take her mind off her family’s struggles has become one of the foremost resources available; textweek.com now gets more than two million visits each month.  What begin as a diversion has become her life’s work.  “A ministry, to me, means giving myself away,” she says, “not for what it gets me or God or the church, but for the act itself.  To me, this is probably the essence of faith.”

From a child’s life-changing diagnosis came a mother’s church-changing, world-changing ministry, because she heard and heeded God’s call to give herself away in caring for her family and in contributing to the church and to the world.

*          *          *

Some of these stories may sound familiar to you.  Some of them involve names you probably know, like Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela.  Maybe you heard Antoinette Tuff’s name in the news stories that came out of Atlanta last month.  But I’m guessing that Matt and Raymie, the Tennessee couple, and Jenee Woodard, the mother and website maker, are new to you—and that’s the point.

Often when we think about a Call From God, it sounds like something written with capital letters, perhaps boldfaced or italicized.  It sounds like something extraordinary, something that only particularly special, particularly holy people would receive.  But our scriptures have something else to say.


Nearly every person in the Bible who is described as receiving a call from God has a pretty good reason why it shouldn’t be them.  In today’s readings, Jeremiah says, “I don’t know how to speak!  I’m only a child!”  And Simon Peter says, “Leave me, Lord, for I’m a sinner!”  But these aren’t the only two.

Moses was called by God to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, but before he went, he made a number of objections.  Who am I to do this?  Who are you to call me?  What if they don’t believe me?  What if they won’t listen?  I’m not very eloquent.  Please, send someone else![6]

Gideon was called by God to deliver the Israelites from the oppressive rule of Midian.  He also objected.  How can I do this?  I come from a weak clan, and I am the weakest one in my family.[7]

Isaiah was called by God to be a prophet to the nations.  He objected.  I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.  I am not good enough.[8]

Mary was called by God to bear God’s son, Jesus.  She also objected.  How can this be, since I am a virgin?[9]

It seems that God doesn’t call people based on our qualifications, at least not the qualifications we know how to measure.  God calls prophets who are slow of speech, and military leaders who are the runts of the litter.  God calls the ones who have doubts and questions, the ones who are not sure of themselves, the ones who think there’s probably someone else out there who deserves it more than they do, the ones who think they’ll never amount to anything, the ones who have no idea how they will manage to do the thing God is asking of them.

Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela spoke of the desolate loneliness they felt, the heavy burden of their calls to change their societies, their nations, our world.

Antoinette Tuff spoke of the terror she felt as she tried to say the right things, tried to find the words that would swing the pendulum away from death and toward life.

Matt and Raymie speak of the sadness they feel when they encounter people who believe their family should not have equal rights and equal protections.

Jenee Woodard speaks of the overwhelming challenge of her son’s autism.  She says, “You don’t see me when I’m by myself, screaming … ‘I didn’t ask for this! I don’t want this! It shouldn’t be mine anymore!’”[10]

Ready or not, God called them—and then God equipped them.  Just as with Jeremiah, God placed words into his mouth, so with each of these individuals, God gave them the capacity to fulfil God’s call for them.

If God calls and equips the likes of Rosa and Nelson, Antoinette and Jenee, Matt and Raymie, then who is to say that God doesn’t call and equip the likes of us, too?


Often when we think about a Call From God, it sounds like something extraordinary, something unusual and important, some magnum opus, some mind-blowingly significant work.  But our Christian tradition has something else to say.

Martin Luther, a German theologian who lived about 500 years ago, was utterly convinced that even household tasks like washing dishes, sweeping floors, and changing diapers were ways of serving God and responding to God’s call.[11]  And John Calvin, a French theologian and a contemporary of Luther’s, wrote that “No task will be so sordid and base, provided you obey your calling in it, that it will not shine and be reckoned very precious in God’s sight.”[12]

When we read the stories of Jeremiah and Simon Peter, of Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela, we often see them as larger than life—and in a way, they are.  But you can bet your life that there are a whole lot more stories where those came from, stories that may not get written down as often or shared as widely, but stories of call and service to God nevertheless.  And you just never know which of those small, mundane actions will snowball into something bigger that just might change the world.


So, friends, my question for you today is this.  How have you experienced God’s call in your life?  When has God called you to do a new thing, to go to a new place, to meet a new challenge?

And how is God calling you now?  Where is God speaking in your family life?  Where is God calling you in your work life?  How does God show up in your church life?  What is God saying in your spiritual life?

What new thing is God calling you to do?

What new place is God calling you to go?

What long-ago rift is God calling you to mend?

What issue of justice is God calling you to address?

What word of truth is God calling you to speak?

What message is God calling you to hear?

What person is God calling you to love?


How is God calling you now?

It might be something small; it might be something large.  It might be something easy; it might be something hard.  It might be something familiar; it might be something totally different.

How is God calling you now?

And what are you going to do about it?


[1] Theoharis, Jeanne.  “Rosa Parks:  I had been pushed as far as I could stand.”  Salon.com, February 3, 2013.  http://www.salon.com/2013/02/03/rosa_parks_i_had_been_pushed_as_far_as_i_could_stand/

[2] Mandela, Nelson.  “Reflections on Working for Peace” (excerpt from Long Walk to Freedom).  http://www.scu.edu/ethics/architects-of-peace/Mandela/essay.html

[3] Goldman, Russell, and Newcomb, Alyssa.  “Elementary School Clerk Convinced Suspect to Put His Weapons Down and Surrender.”  August 20, 2013.  http://abcnews.go.com/US/elementary-school-clerk-convinced-suspect-put-weapons-surrender/story?id=20014879

[4] Campaign for Southern Equality.  “Matt and Raymie.”  January 6, 2013.  www.southernequality.org/2013/01/matt-and-raymie/

[5] Oppat, Susan L.  “The woman behind Textweek.com.”  July 2, 2013.  www.faithandleadership.com/profiles/the-woman-behind-textweekcom.

[6] Exodus 3-4

[7] Judges 6:15

[8] Isaiah 6:5

[9] Luke 1:34

[10] Oppat, Susan L.  “The woman behind Textweek.com.”  July 2, 2013.  www.faithandleadership.com/profiles/the-woman-behind-textweekcom.

[11] Luther, Martin.  “A Sermon on Christian Righteousness.”  October 3, 1529.  www.godrules.net/library/luther/129luther_e13.htm

[12] Calvin, John.  Institutes of Christian Religion, 3.6.10.