I have long since lost the playbill, but I think it was about 1973. I was 15, and was the props mistress for My Fair Lady playing at the Spokane Civic Theatre. I had always wanted to act, but I had never gotten cast to play the hallowed footlights of the Civic Theatre. So I worked every show behind the scenes- props, lights, construction: whatever they needed, I was there. So even though I was never cast, everyone knew me.
And there we were at the dress rehearsal. I was sitting in the audience, watching. Twiddling my thumbs. We opened in two days. We got to the scene where the vicar comes to visit Henry Higgins’ mother, and the maid comes in to announce him. But… they had forgotten to cast someone to play the maid! It was a small part- only one line- easily overlooked. It wasn’t until this full run-through that the realized that… they had no maid! And suddenly, the director’s voice echoed out of the darkened hall, “Nansi! The vicar has arrived, ma’am; shall I show him into the garden.”
What? What? I didn’t understand. With a broad smile, the actor who played Henry Higgins, Lanny Reese, said, “You’ve just been cast as the maid, Nansi. Your line is, ‘The vicar has arrived, ma’am; shall I show him into the garden.’”
I jumped up, ran onto the stage, my heart bursting within my breast. I was an actress! I had an actual line to say! I was… chosen!
You have to know, I still know that line by heart. It’s MY LINE! I was chosen to say that line! Sometimes I say it to myself just to give myself a boost. “The vicar has arrived, ma’am; shall I show him into the garden?”
There is something about being chosen. It’s not something we can do for ourselves. We can prep, we can study, we can hope: but it is someone else who chooses us. We are chosen not just because of who we are, but because we are called to a purpose in the world. In 1973, I was called out of the dark hall to bring the vicar in out of the garden. In 1981, at my baptism, I was called out of a dark life to bring light into the world. And in 1987, I was called to preach the gospel. I was chosen, not by myself, but by a God who had a purpose for me.
We are told in Isaiah that God calls us even when we are still in the womb. God calls us, and names us, and gives us a purpose. There is not one of us who hasn’t been chosen by God.And it is the task of every one of us to listen for our calling.
What is it that you have been called to? Tammie Bonestroo has described her work at the Masonic Health Care Center as a deep, spiritual calling. She has been chosen to touch the lives of those with dementia. The theologian Frederick Buechner wrote that “our vocation is that place where our greatest bliss encounters the world’s deepest need. “ Tammie’s bliss is found in touching those who have lost themselves in the labyrinth of their minds. Tammie, it is a privilege to know someone like you, who understands that they have been chosen for a holy work.
Each of us has been chosen, so I need to ask you: Where does your deep joy intersect with the world’s great need? It is that for which God created you.
A number of us will probably say, “I have no idea what my great bliss is, or what God has called me to do.”
That’s an uncomfortable place to be, isn’t it? When we want to know our calling, but we just don’t feel it yet, don’t see it yet. We are still sitting in the dark for the director to say, “The vicar has arrived, ma’am…”
Sometimes I think that’s where we are right now as a church. We know that God has chosen us. We know that God has called us. But called us to what? To whom? We’re feeling our way, trying to sense the Spirit’s guiding.
We are called to be a warm, embracing people who reach out to include those who aren’t welcome elsewhere-the LGBT community, the cognitively disabled community, the homeless community. And bit by bit, God is bringing us to those we are to serve- where our greatest bliss encounters the world’s deepest need.
We were the first Christian church in Waukesha Co to embrace the LGBT community; we host the Prader-Willi community for choir concerts twice a year; we host homeless families through Family Promise 4 weeks a year.
Last week, we had Carol Howard Merritt come in and listen to our dreams for Emmanuel. In the course of this next year, she is going to be holding our feet to the flames of our dreams. Who are we going to invite into this community? Who are we going to make welcome? And where will we find the courage to overcome our own shyness and reticence to reach out into a world that so deeply needs the message of God’s grace?
In Isaiah 49, the chosen Servant of God starts out in pain; he’s having a little whine.“God said to me, ‘Israel, you are My servant, through whom I shall manifest my glory.’ But I said, ‘My labors have been futile; I have exhausted myself for nothing.’” Yeah, sure; I’m the light to the nations. I’m the one to cast the gloom from the corners and give hope to the hopeless. But nothing that I’ve done has worked. I’m exhausted and I have nothing to show for it.
Whine whine whine. But it’s an understandable whine. Nothing seemed to be working to get people to listen to him. And after a while, it got discouraging. But then the Servant gets over his pity party, and he says, “Yet surely I have worked for God, and my reward is with God. And now God has spoken- the same God who formed me in the womb to bring God’s people back. And in this I am honored, and God has become my strength.”
It is God who has called us to our work, God who opens the doors, if we will but open our eyes. Which means that our first task in living into God’s purpose is to open our eyes, to step out in faith, and trust that God has something there for us.
Throughout our daily life- here at church, at work, at the grocery store, in our neighborhood- we are called to practice hospitality and friendliness. We are not here to simply provide services, but to share God’s love, mercy and compassion those we come in contact with. Because it may be that we are the presence of God to someone just at a point when they need to know God’s presence.
His name was Tim. He was 20 years old, and autistic. Very bright in his own way, but socially unskilled. One day Tim wanders into church. The service had already started, but Tim didn’t look for a seat; he found a place on the floor off to the side.The church members noticed… they were uncomfortable- no one knew who he was. But no one said anything. And Tim sat there alone.
Until Henry noticed. Henry was in his eighties, with silver-gray hair. He walked with a cane and, as he started walking toward this boy, everyone was saying to themselves that you can’t blame him for what he’s going to do. How can you expect a man of his age and of his background to understand some strange kid on the floor? It took a long time for Herb to reach the boy. With great difficulty, he lowered himself and sat down next to Tim
and worshiped with him so he wouldn’t be alone.
The pastor said to the congregation… ‘What I’m about to preach, you will never remember. What you have just seen, you will never forget.’
Sometimes, you and I are the very grace of God to another person. Sometimes, unbeknownst to us, our kindness, our hospitality, are what another person needs right then. Sometimes, we’re the ones who need to remind another person that God is there, that God has chosen them, that God cherishes them.
But they don’t always walk into church to make their need known, do they? More often, we need to go to them, to seek them out, to open our eyes to who and what God puts before us.
And if not us, then who?
If not now, then when?
If not here, then where?
Dear friends, what an honor, what a privilege it is to be chosen by God to be vessels of grace. For make no mistake: God has chosen us, and has called us by name. And it is through us that lives will be healed, and changed, and made welcome in the presence of God.
Through the One who loves us, and will never let any of us go: even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
SCRIPTURE FOR JAN. 8, 2017
Coasts and islands, listen to me! Distant peoples, pay attention to me! God called me when I was in the womb,
and before my birth had pronounced my name. God made my mouth like a sharp sword, and hid me in the shadow of Her hand. God made me into a sharpened arrow and concealed me in His quiver. God said to me, “Israel, you are My servant, through whom I shall manifest my glory.” But I said, “My labors have been futile; I have exhausted myself for nothing. Yet surely I have worked for God, and my reward is with God. And now God has spoken, who formed me in the womb to bring God’s peoples back. In this I am honored in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength. God says, “It is not enough for you to be My servant, to bring back my people Israel. I shall make you a light to all the nations, so that My salvation may reach the farthest parts of the earth… For I am faithful, and I have chosen you.”
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.