From the book of Samuel: One night Eli, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Eli’s son, Samuel, was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. Then the LORD called Samuel. Samuel answered, “Here I am.” And he ran to to his father, Eli, and said, “Here I am; you called me.” But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down. Again the LORD called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” “My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD : The word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. Yet, the LORD called Samuel a third time, and Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” Then Eli realized that the LORD was calling his son. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you again, say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’ ” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. The LORD came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”
Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
Call is a funny thing. We can’t easily define it, can never predict when it will come and so often we only recognize we have been called thru the gift of hindsight. God’s calling is a peculiar mix of desire, gifts, abilities and divine blessing. Within each of us, there is a call. After all, we were created to serve. But HOW we do it is what makes up our call. It is what makes you unique.
Today is Epiphany, a day we set aside to celebrate call. It originated with the celebration of Jesus’s call to ministry, begun by the amazing event of his baptism. For the first 30 years of his life, most everyone knew Jesus as just as a man. A well respected and educated man, one with a keen intellect a strong command of the holy scriptures and the potential to be a great rabbi. But that was it.
We find him this morning standing in the waters of the Jordan River. He is an adult being baptized as a mark of his full entrance into ministry. Jesus is graduating. After extensive instruction from other rabbi’s, memorization of the entire OT, prayer and perfected healing techniques he is ready to receive the full weight of his ministry. And we know it will be an extraordinary ministry. Only 2 years in length, but the world was changed by it nonetheless. His calling is special, as he is the son of God. His called is to show the profound, healing, saving love of a God who loved his creation so much that he would suffer if it meant that humans would never suffer again. Calling indeed.
Today is the feast of calling. And like Jesus, every one of us has a calling to be God’s hands and heart on earth. To carry the love of God to every corner of God’s creation. To serve in quiet and humble ways with our obvious gifts and abilities and to serve in grand, life-altering ways we never thought possible. Whatever its shape, our calling is to alleviate the suffering of others; be it in heart, head or body, Whether you are 16 considering college or 60 settling into a life of retirement, today is the day you stand before God and say “ here I am Lord, speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam).
In 2000, I was in Central Asia, working as a missionary in the Himalayas. It was, at the time, one of the most dangerous places in the world because of the nuclear arms race raging between the two nations the region straddled: Pakistan and India. I worked in a dry, rugged, largely unmapped matrix of villages among people called Ladakis, who are a peaceful mixture of Muslim and Buddhist. Their ethnic origins are Tibetan. A kind and gentle people they were so welcoming of me, the first westerner many of them had ever seem. They housed me, told me their stories and filled me with gurguk tea, which is black tea cut with rancid yak butter and salt. Oi! Bad time for sure!
I lived in those heavenly mountains between India and Pakistan for a year teaching religion and translating texts. And it was among those people that I recognized my call to be a priest. To not only teach and preach, as I was doing, but to baptize and to share the precious food and drink of our faith: the Eucharist. I am so grateful to the Ladakhis for being a means of grace in my life.
Now that region hosts dozens of peaks over 23,000 feet high, with Pakistan’s K2 cutting upwards of 28,000 feet into the clouds. Westerners were rare in that region and in all the time I was there I think I saw 6, in all. And they were all there for the mountains. To trek, hike and conquer those foreboding jagged rocks that shot into the sky, seeming to pierce heaven itself.
In the rock climbing world they call them dirtbags….guys whose entire lives revolve around their next mountain climb. They sleep wherever they can and pick up odd jobs until they can catch a ride to another base-camp. Rock climbers tend to be free spirits and get their kicks from the thrill of the climb. While I was living in Ladakh, there was one such climber living a little north of me in Pakistan and Afghanistan whose life had been changed by the mountains and their extraordinary inhabitants. And in return he was busy changing life for them. His name is Greg Mortinson and his work has been made famous by the book ‘Three Cups of Tea’. A child of really successful Christian missionaries to Africa, Greg experienced terrible loss as a young adult when his sister died from a severe epileptic seizure. Compelled by grief, Greg became a dirtbag, seeking out a summit upon which to climb out his grief. And he chose the toughest of them all K2. K2 is said to be the world’s most difficult and dangerous climb. For every 4 who summit it, 1 dies trying. And Greg almost did… die I mean. While he was climbing he got lost, in a place where getting lost means dying, and the altitude stole any clarity of thought he once had. The thin air of that high peak stripped his mind of clarity. Greg was injured, exhausted and hungry and delirious.
As he wandered he recalling his childhood raised in Africa by Christian missionary parents, he began to sing “What a friend we have in Jesus”, in the Swahili language he had learned as a child. A Minnisota Lutheran raised in Tanganika lost in Pakistan singing in Swahili. Must have been a sight! As he sang, he searched and, by the grace of God, he found help. He came upon the very people among whom I had received my calling. Though in that part of the region they are not called Ladakhi, they are called Balti. The Balti are just as close knit, kind, gentle and generous, they are as good a people as you will find anywhere. And in a terrain like that, where life is lived among thin air and hard rocks cut by ancient glaciers, hospitality like theirs makes the difference between life and death.
The Balti not only saved Greg’s life, they converted it. They surrounded him with care, even in the midst of their great scarcity and they restored his body and soul. He admired their pride and goodness and he was struck by their poverty and need. After spending some time in the village of Korphe he came upon children gathered in the open air with nothing but sticks to scratch math equations in the dirt. One child, Chochey said to Greg, “we need a school”. Now Greg was not a teacher, he didn’t have a home or a bank account and no friends in positions of power. So, of course, he said yes! He promised Chochey he would build her people a school. And just like that a call was answered. Greg was no longer a climber, he was now a peacemaker.
Places like that are a powder keg with a mixture of political instability, extremist movements and desperate poverty. Illiteracy and ignorance is so often the matchstick that ignites the powder keg, exploding into war and terror. Greg saw the problems and he also saw the possibilities. He recognized that what little Chochey already knew, that education would not only raise her standard of living, but it would preserve the communal villages from the fear mongering and violence of the Taliban. As is true of most great people, Greg started by helping that one child, with one school in one community. Since 1993, Mortenson has established 131 schools in rural and often volatile regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, which provide education to over 58,000 children, including 44,000 girls, where few education opportunities existed before, especially for women. These schools not only provide education and opportunities, they are a haven from the extremism of hateful Taliban thought that preys on the illiterate and ignorant.. Education is a powerful alternative, surely more powerful than any gun or IED could ever be.
I talk about Greg Mortinson, because he is a fabulous example of calling. He is an unexpected saint who has an extraordinary ministry. And you know what, the world is full of em’. Scripture says over and over that God will use any means necessary to bring grace into the world. He will use the blessing of a newborn child or the terrifying threat of illness. He will use a Christian, he will use a Muslim. He will use you and he will use me. He will speak to us through any and all means of his creation. We need only listen to hear him. To hear his call. To let him use us to not only serve the needs of eachother, but to lift eachother up and out of whatever burdens us; whether it be ignorance, illness, suffering or oppression. God will do whatever he needs to to call us to help one another build his kingdom here, on earth.
When Greg Mortinson first met the Balti people 17 years ago, he could have turned his back on their need. He very easily could have said they are just too poor, too remote, it’s too difficult… they are Muslim for God’s sake! But what would have proved harder, in the end, what would have left Greg empty inside, is if he turned his back on God’s call. God called him to help the Balti people tucked away in those gorgeous and unforgiving mountains. Rather than allowing the challenge of the task that lay before him keep him from pursuing solutions, Greg listened to his heart, and he responded to the call that came through the child. He showed up and said ‘yes’.
Greg was here last night. He spoke at the Richmond Forum, and I was awe struck by the sense of call that radiated from that humble man. He is shy. He is not a very good public speaker and yet he had a crowd of over 3000 in rapt attention. He has no background in marketing or community building yet he has the ear of politicians, political leaders, and military leaders all over the world. He has children in over 4000 schools nationwide supporting his work, received a Nobel nomination and he is successfully educating 58,000 Pakistanis and Afghans, and counting.
You see, all Greg has going for him are two things: one, a belief in the power of goodness and, two, the willingness to show up. God called and Greg showed up. “Come here”, God said to him, “come here and listen to Chochey. Don’t worry about the rest”. Greg followed through with one promise to one child and God took care of the rest.
Today, we celebrate call. The call that God has placed in each of our hearts. The call to seek him out and serve him. Whether you are here to celebrate the call you have already said “yes” to or you are waiting to hear the call you have yet to receive, welcome. You are called. Whether it be in the east end of Richmond or on the eastern edges of the Middle East. Whether it be using our education, training and gifts, or whether it will tap into gifts we didn’t know we had.
Today is the day we celebrate your call.
And so we say, with all conviction and hope, “Here I am Lord, speak, for your servant is listening.”