Last weekend I went with friends to see the musical “Avenue Q” at Cain Park. This Tony-award winning musical has been described as “Sesame Street for Adults” for its use of puppets and discussion of more mature subjects. I know some from this congregation are familiar with the content, but for those of you who aren’t, the basic storyline is that of a recent college graduate, Princeton, who moves to a shabby apartment building on Avenue Q in New York City. There he meets many diverse and colorful characters all of who help Princeton eventually find his life’s purpose.
As a chaplain, I encounter people in crisis. As many of you know, there is no such thing as a casual hospital visit or minor surgery. The fear and anxiety are measured in levels of degree, always lurking no matter how calm the exterior. Unsurprisingly, this is often fertile ground to discuss issues of fundamental importance. Where does your hope come from? In what do you put your trust? What is your experience teaching you about yourself, your relationships with others, your relationship with God? What does your healing look and feel like? Implicit within these conversations are questions of purpose and meaning. And discovering or rediscovering your purpose – God’s call for you – is powerful.
This past week I had occasion to celebrate with a patient in the Alcohol and Drug Rehabilitation Center as he prepared to transfer from our inpatient detox unit to an outside treatment facility. Lenny – as I’ll call him – was bursting with gratitude for the wondrous things the Lord had done for him. He told me of the decades of wrestling with his addiction, repeatedly asking God “Is this all you have in mind for me? To be an addict?” Three days sober with a plan to continue treatment, Lenny had heard God’s answer and was exceedingly hopeful. Lenny had renewed conviction and a sense of purpose; a vision for his life that is clean and sane.
While I am encouraged by Lenny’s enthusiasm, I am also aware that living into and sustaining God’s vision and purpose is a much longer process; one that will inevitably have peaks and valleys. That’s why I encouraged Lenny to commit to a daily practice of connecting with his Higher Power, particularly on days when the vision is clouded by disappointment and setback. Indeed, both this morning’s lectionary texts speak to shadow side of accepting God’s call and the personal risks assumed in carrying it out. These risks are made explicit in our reading from the Hebrew scriptures and the commissioning of Ezekiel.
A prophet, you may remember, does not primarily foretell the future. A prophet speaks to the present, declaring God’s Word to the people in light of their current circumstances. The prophet declares the next good step for God’s people to take. Ezekiel is called as God’s prophet at the start of the sixth century BCE. This is a time of intense political and religious crisis for Israel. Babylonian armies have laid siege to Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and carried off into exile in Babylon, the king and many members of the elite, including Ezekiel, a priest of the temple. In addition to the stresses of living in a foreign land far from home, critical theological questions are raised about God’s relationship with Israel. The temple in Jerusalem was the center of religious life – the place where prayers were offered and sacrifices brought – but more than that, it was considered the very dwelling place of God. Now that the temple is destroyed and Jerusalem sacked, has the Lord abandoned Israel? Or is God with those who remain in the homeland, leaving the Diaspora community alone in despair?
Prophets rise up among the people, making conflicting claims concerning the deportation and the length of the exile. It is reasonable to think that many of the exiles believed they were already punished and that God’s next act should be one of forgiveness and redemption. Yet, if you are familiar with the rest of the narrative, this is not the word Ezekiel delivers. God commissions Ezekiel to warn the people of Israel to cease their rebellion and return to faithful living. Is it any wonder that God’s prophet will face opposition and his message go unheard? The prophet’s work is admittedly an exercise in futility and God knows this from the outset.
So why even call Ezekiel to this work? Old Testament scholar Robert Wilson explains, “It stands as an eloquent testimony to God’s unwillingness to allow Israel to be destroyed. Even though it is clear from the beginning that the people will not respond, God continues to call them through the prophet in the hope that at least a few individuals will repent and save their own lives.” Our God is steadfast, faithful, and perhaps just as stubborn and hard-headed about God’s own agenda as the Diaspora community Ezekiel is warned about.
I can imagine that it is a similar desire that motivates Jesus to return home to Nazareth. At this point in Mark’s narrative, Jesus has performed great miracles on both shores of the Sea of Galilee – and as we heard last week in the middle of it too – so now it’s time to pay a visit to his hometown. Presumably, his reputation as a preacher and a miracle worker precedes him. Yet, he is not received as the hometown hero or celebrity superstar one might expect. In this case, familiarity breeds contempt.
Sure, at first they are captivated and seemingly awestruck. Where did he get all of this? What wisdom! What power to perform miracles! Then somewhere in verses 2-3 everything changes. In a social system where status is determined at birth and fixed, Jesus cannot escape his own humble beginnings. The people of Nazareth dismiss Jesus because they already know him and he is nothing special. They recognize the son, the brother, the carpenter, the ordinary neighborhood boy. So they take offense and quickly disabuse themselves of believing Jesus is worth the hype. And indeed, Jesus meets their expectations – he is unable to perform any deeds of power in their midst.
This is a troubling statement. We know that God has endowed Jesus, as the Messiah, with God’s own power. Yet, his rejection at Nazareth renders him powerless to heal more than “a few sick people.” Like many things in Scripture, we don’t get a clear explanation. The passage seems to be a cautionary tale for us on two fronts. First, it begs us to ask ourselves how are we like the townspeople who dismiss Jesus and dismiss the prophets in our community? What opportunities for blessing and healing have we missed because of our limited trust in God?
And secondly, similar to the Ezekiel text, when the shoe is on the other foot and we are called to work performed in Christ’s name – when we witness to a different way of doing and being in the world – we can expect pushback and even outright rejection. The good news is that ultimately, we are not held responsible for the outcome or the response; that is God’s doing. Like Jesus, we move on and persist in our work, responsible only for our own faithfulness; that is our purpose.
This message about being called to faithfulness over and above success is difficult for many of us to swallow. I know that it gives me pause. After all, we live in a culture obsessed with measurements and statistics. We count, we track, and we compare in nearly every area of our lives. It begins at birth when we are measured and weighed and continues throughout our lives – from test scores and cholesterol levels to our stock portfolio.
The real motivation underlying this compulsion is a desire to succeed; we want to know that our efforts make a difference. But God never promises us success or even progress. God promises to be with us.
New York Times columnist Alina Tugend recently wrote a piece entitled “Redefining Success and Celebrating the Unremarkable.” In it she addresses what she describes as an unhealthy, unrelenting pursuit of exceptionality. As a culture, we have bought into the popular notion that all of us should strive to be exceptional and remarkable. Yet, as psychologist Madeline Levine points out most people have talent in some areas, are average performers in many areas and are subpar in some areas. “The problem,” as Tugend sees it, “is that we have such a limited view of what we consider an accomplished life that we devalue many qualities that are critically important.” She cites Katrina Kenison, author of “The Gift of an Ordinary Day” who explains, “I know I began writing in an attempt to heal the disconnect between what I observed around me – the pressure to excel, to be special, to succeed – and what I felt were the real values I wanted to pass on to my children: kindness, service, compassion, gratitude for life as it is.”
You know, the whole prophetic tradition in the Bible is directed to those claiming to be faithful to God and God’s teachings, yet who are in reality being utterly unfaithful to God and God’s covenant with them. I’m not suggesting that we are utterly unfaithful, but I know that these texts have convicted me of my own prideful nature. For it is my pride that puts the weight of the world on my own shoulders, thinking that somehow I am responsible for the results. Who am I to think that I am the one ultimately in charge?
This is a hard word for us to hear – at least it is for me. God challenges us to be counter-cultural. To forgo our measuring sticks and to trust in God for the harvest. To embrace the ordinariness of ourselves and know, really know, that we are enough. Yet, there is also an incredible relief in knowing that success is not my call, not my purpose. I, we are called to be faithful. As one scholar put it, “there is something liberating about the concept of faithfulness, for it has little to do with successes and achievements. Rather, it has much to do with sincerity, trust, loyalty and love.”
Faithfulness is a rich word in the Christian lexicon. Faithfulness is a relational word. Faithfulness is tied up with the concept of a covenant relationship between God and people. And as with all relationships, there are moments when we must re-examine, admit our shortcomings and start again. So today, I encourage you to really think seriously about what specifically God is calling you to? What is Forest Hill being called to? Call rarely comes as dramatically as Ezekiel’s and we know that there are risks involved. We may be misunderstood; our words and desires may fall on deaf ears. But pay attention to that inner nudging, that new sense of passion, pursue areas of shared excitement and future possibilities. We can do this because the measure of our success doesn’t depend on numbers or statistics. Rather our discernment of the call and our faithfulness to it.