Today is Trinity Sunday, a day when the church invites us to consider the presence of the Holy One in three different dimensions: as Creating God, Redeeming Christ, and Sustaining Holy Spirit. Not three different beings, but three different glimpses of one mystery. I think there are other places where we’re offered different glimpses of the same core truth. This is a season of “Living Differently.” Are we ready?
We can see our life together as a faith community from more than one perspective. We often talk about how the “fruits of the Spirit” are given to us for three different purposes:
- equipping the saints, or the inner journey;
- doing the work of ministry – the outer journey; and
- building up the Body of Christ – the community journey.
We understand God’s call on us can head us in any one of these direction – inner, outer or community. But what if we listen for God’s call in more than one of these dimensions … at the same time!? This is a season of “Living Differently.” Are we ready?
One other bit of background: As I was reminded by the flag-waving Rolling Thunder on the roads this morning, tomorrow is Memorial Day. Its a time when the nation invites us to pause and remember those who have done their duty as part of our armed services, trying to preserve the opportunities we have to live as an entire nation in the same ways we are called to live as a faith community.
This morning I invite all of us who have served on active duty to stand. [Pause] And now would those who have served as spouses of someone on active duty please join them … and children of veterans … and parents. [Pause] Thank you for your service.
Over two decades of “active duty” taught me that it can be a heavy commitment, no matter how you look at it. “Doing my duty” often seems to be in tension with “following my call.” But really, aren’t these two approaches to commitment related to each other? “Call” and “duty” seem to me to be different perspectives of the same faith journey. This is a season of “Living Differently.” Are we ready?
The more I’ve thought about this morning, the closer I‘ve come to see three different ideas wrapping themselves around each other in my head:
- Memorial Day holds up for me a polarity between “duty” and “call,” inviting me to look at how they complement each other, rather than compete.
- This Trinitarian approach might open us to hearing God’s call in more than one dimension of life; and
- With the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost last Sunday, we’re invited to look at our faith journey in three different ways, like a tripod of perspectives.
CALL AND DUTY CAN BE A POWERFUL, AND PRODUCTIVE, POLARITY
Although “Call” and “Duty” may sound incompatible, I think they’re in fact a powerful reinforcement for each other. I like to be helpful. I’m pretty sure I’ve been an Enneagram Two from an early age. Most of the time being a good Boy Scout (Trustworthy, loyal, …) brings me satisfaction (the lower-case “joy,” (although sometimes my tendency to want to be helpful gets me in trouble, even after 50 years of working for others, and almost 49 years of marriage to Marjory.) I still have lots to learn about living differently!
The way I see it, “duty” is a close cousin of honor. It means honoring another’s different understanding of what is important. Sometimes honoring your priorities fits wonderfully with mine. And, sometimes I need to set my own priorities aside to be responsive to you. For me, “duty” includes both: the way we respond to others’ needs that are congruent with our own, as well as those times when we must let our own needs wait as we respond to the needs of others.
Now I know that for some of us, “duty” doesn’t feel that way at all. I’m ready to honor what is true for you, and not ask that you respond to calls to duty if they make you feel manipulated. I’m inviting us to look again, and to expect glimpses of what it means to be living differently.
For me (and maybe I’m odd in this way) duty is like the practice we do to learn something by heart. We pray, some of us meditate, others ride bicycles or crochet or cook. And over time we discover that there is joy in places where before we’ve only felt the awkward pain of new beginnings. As we respond to God’s call we can expect to be invited to do our duty. When God’s call feels really big, duty is often in the details.
But even when we start from duty, doing something that feels like an obligation, God’s gift to us can often be an unexpected sense of being called, one of those fresh glimpses I mentioned a minute ago. Yesterday morning I started out to come here to be a part of Martha’s Mob out of a sense of duty. I left home with a bit of heaviness, thinking about the relaxed morning I would be missing. But a lively conversation with Vincent, Jake, Glen and the 2 Kens at the men’s breakfast, and when I got here there was a crowd already hard at work. Four moments of Martha’s Mob stand out as glimpses of “call” for me:
- The moment when Will and I finished replacing the filters and closed the cover on the big air conditioner on the roof – the one that’s keeping us cool right now;
- The moment when Dave Lloyd and I found the hidden filter in the unit that cools the children’s room; and
- The short conversation I had with Jill Joseph about how our trash service works.
- And finally, there was the moment Glen and I got the elevator reset, saving us an emergency weekend service call.
Each of these felt tome like a little glimpse of a deeper connection with another member of this family of faith, a bit of tile in the mosaic of our life together.
Here’s another amazing example. Last night at just about 8:00 pm Marjory and I were finishing a quiet, delicious dinner when the phone rang. It was Katie, calling to say that water was streaming through the light fixture onto the floor outside the sanctuary! There were about 100 people in the sanctuary and the evening’s concert had just begun. What should we do? Katie had tried to contact someone closer but hadn’t gotten through. I’d been planning to go over this sermon one more time, but Katie’s call changed my plans.
So Marjory and I came to Carroll Street to do what we could. I called Keith who got in touch with our air conditioning company, who said it was probably a plugged drain on the big unit in the roof. I was on the roof talking to the air conditioning technician when a man I didn’t know came through the library window. It turned out he volunteers next door at the Elektrik Maid and was here for the concert. He’s also a handyman who had experience with big air conditioners. He’d recognized the problem and had already blown the drain clear. He and the technician I was talking to on the phone spoke with each other, confirmed the problem had been fixed, and assured me that the leak would stop as soon as the water drained out of the insulation in the ceiling.
I was elated that all the little pieces had come together and the problem had been solved. By then it was only 9:00 pm and after an amazing conversation in the parking lot with the handyman from the “Maid,” Marjory and I had time to stop in at the sing-along for the final set. What had begun as an emergency call to duty had turned into an adventure and an opportunity for community hospitality.
Call? How do these little vignettes qualify as call? Well, the call of Time & Space mission group includes a commitment “… to love our building in the service of ministries and missions of Seekers Church and other groups.” Clean, cool air, and efficient trash removal and an elevator that works may be mundane, but without them it would be much harder for our building to be a place of loving ministry. I went home feeling a special quiet joy.
Last week the daily “Inward/outward” meditation offered an observation that spoke to me about call and duty:
The True Joy of Life
George Bernard Shaw
This is the true joy of life, the being used up for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live.
Inward/Outward 13 May
I like that: “I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live.” That’s call as duty, or duty as call, a productive polarity.
In their book, “Managing Polarities in Congregations,” Roy Oswald and Barry Johnson identify one of the key polarities for a thriving faith community is the one marked by Call and Duty. They introduce the idea of polarities in congregational life with a question:
Are we going to have a highly nurturing and caring congregation whose members manifest God’s unconditional love, or are we going to have a congregation whose members feel challenged to change their lives – to grow up spiritually and to accept accountability for living lives of commitment and service? This question is driven by a double message about God … On the one hand we are told that God is a nurturing God who loves us unconditionally just as we are. On the other hand, we are told that God consistently challenges us to grow spiritually and to lead lives that promote justice, mercy, and compassion. This God demands transformation in our lives and holds us accountable for our actions. Which is it?
“Managing Polarities in Congregations,” pg 1.
Oswald and Johnson see this as a polarity of interdependent truths that complement each other. How are these two ideas related? Call is about doing what God wants, while duty is seen as a burden. But don’t we remember Jesus saying something about “… my yoke is easy and my burden is light?” For some – and this seems way too simplistic for me – these mutually exclusive descriptions of call and duty seem to apply.
For me, call reveals the breadth of God’s love, while duty shows the depth of my own commitment. God calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. One way I see that here is the breadth of our current conversations – and compassionate actions – in caring for particular individuals who are living on the margins of society, here and abroad. Responding to these needs has called forth our time, our talent and our resources to help in many ways.
I think the dynamic tension between call and duty is a healthy part of the life of any congregation. Maybe the emphasis on call in the tradition of Church of the Saviour was a reflection on how strong the sense of obligation had been so dominant in church communities 50 years ago. (Mary Cosby’s story of the Knights of the White Magnolia comes to mind as an example of how parishioners were recruited to support congregational activities whose useful life had ended.) I believe that it is important for us to keep the pendulum swinging between call and duty.
In Managing Polarities in Congregations, the authors identify a few early warnings when call is overemphasized:
- There are complaints that members won’t serve because it doesn’t fit their call.
- Few people are willing to take on menial jobs.
- When a new call comes, people abandon old roles – hurting the congregation.
- When pursuing a cal people can neglect other duties.
- When feeling called, people may think they are more pleasing in the sight of God.
Although I can think of a few examples of this over the past 30 years, I’m not too worried.
Here are the warning signs Oswald and Johnson offer to help identify when duty is getting predominant:
- There are complaints that “People rarely lift a finger around here.”
- People feel they are working hard and are unappreciated.
- People experience discouragement when their efforts don’t increase the congregation’s health and vitality.
- People burn out and leave the church.
- Certain members are exploited because of their keen sense of duty.
Here again, I think the signs are pretty good for us, but its worth watching.
I’m convinced that a healthy balance between Call and Duty is dynamic, moving in response to the wind of the Spirit and the weight of the world in ways that we won’t always understand. In the end, responding to God’s call, as an individual or as a faith community will surely generate the need for dutiful response. And, being dutiful can open our eyes to some new call from God. Its rather like the pendulum of a clock, a kind of forced, damped harmonic oscillation.
TRINITY INVITES US TO SEE THINGS DIFFERENTLY
Trinity Sunday is a day when we claim again the coming of the Holy Spirit among those who believe that Christ is Risen. When the Spirit came among the early disciples they were moved to live differently – very differently. As individuals and as a community they responded to God’s call to go to new places, tell the Good News in new ways, bring faith and hope and love to the hurting world of their day through new acts of justice and compassion. For many followers of Christ, the commitment to respond to God’s call brought them nothing but trouble. In this week’s Epistle lesson, Paul is able to turn his tribulations into a word of hope:
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. (Romans 5:1-5)
While I’ve often had trouble with my sense of Paul’s boasting (even “boasting in the Lord”) I resonate with this description of spiritual growth: suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. If we can learn from our experience, then all is not lost.
Paul is inviting us to see suffering from a different perspective. And isn’t that what the presence of the Holy Spirit offers us a chance to see things from a different perspective? We expect that each of us will hear and respond to a particular call from God. And we count on the presence of the Holy Spirit to help us in our discernment. As the Gospel lesson for this week reminds us:
But when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.
Thinking about Trinity led me to thinking about tripods. Like this stool. [Show the stool] I like this little stool. It’s compact and very sturdy. It holds my weight comfortably as I work on things that are close to the ground. And the fact that the legs can be collapsed reminds me that tripod stools really need to have all three legs about the same length. This one isn’t much help if I let one of the legs collapse.
[Collapse one leg and try to stand it up]
Choosing to consider God from different perspectives can give us a more stable understanding … of God, of our relationship with God and of the ways God calls us to different opportunities for mission and ministry.
Our faith journey IS ANOTHER TRINITY – inner, outer and community
As I’ve pondered the tripod of the Trinity this year I’ve been led to reflect on that other common “trinity” in our life together, the three dimensions of our spiritual journey: an inner journey of prayer and discernment, an outer journey of service and compassion, and a community journey of inclusion and hospitality.
As we say in our community prayer of commitment and dedication:
We pray for the commitment to grow together, [community]
sharing the gifts you give us with others
here and in the wider world. [outer]
Give us strength and discipline
to nurture our relationship with you; [inner]
to care for every part of your creation;
to foster justice and be in solidarity with those in need;
to work to end all war, and violence, and discord; [outer]
and to respond joyfully when you call,
freely giving our selves as you have shown the way.
Sometimes it’s a challenge to live this out in the everyday structures of our lives. This is particularly true if we’re off balance, with much more attention focused on one of those three elements of call – inner, or outer, or community.
It takes practice to live differently in this way. I think this is part of what the Holy Spirit is calling us to this year. We have the opportunity to add a dimension to our commitment to foster justice and be in solidarity with those in need by responding to the needs of those among us. We have the opportunity – and the invitation – to offer a part of who we are to help others. It will mean making the choice, in some way, to live differently.
The Holy Spirit is here, calling us to a season of “Living Differently.” Are we ready? Are we ready to wrestle with the idea of being “Called to Active Duty?”
- Accepting the necessity of some duty as part of every call, and watching for the emergence of new call from our dutiful practice.
- Looking at call in different dimensions of our life – the inner journey of spiritual growth, the outer journey of witness and service, and the community journey of building up this small part of the Body of Christ.
- And beneath it all, God’s call invites us to see everything, from more than one perspective.
“Living Differently” means, well, doing something different with my life. “Jesus calls us, o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless seas.” Are we ready?