The Call

by the Rev. John Lane

This sermon is based on Mark 1:16-18.

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

Many of us have seen the movie Patton, starring George C. Scott as the crusty general. It was based on a biography by Ladislas Farago–a name we don’t have to ask which Ladislas Farago? In the book but not the movie, the story of George Patton’s sense of Call is covered. Patton was a lifelong Episcopalian, growing up in San Gabriel, California. If you visit the church there, the largest stained-glass window was given by the very wealthy Patton family. He read the Bible every night and prayed by his bedside on his knees.

From his early life on. George wanted to attend West Point and be a soldier, but he became alarmed when his cousin Robbie Patton, a fun-loving frat boy at the University of Virginia, suddenly and unexpectedly received The Call. Before that, Robbie was considered perfectly normal. After graduation, he enrolled at the Virginia Theological Seminary, was ordained an Episcopal priest, and had a distinguished career as a holy man in the Diocese of Virginia. The Call from God, as George well knew, had only one answer. From that time on, George’s daily prayers were somewhat modified. He got down on his knees every night, praying for all the usual things, then added a petition that he NOT receive The Call, the only thing that might block his military career. It turns out he was called, called to be a general.

This morning, I want to look at the subject of vocation, call, profession, career, whatever term suits you. In today’s gospel passage from Mark, Jesus is walking along the Sea of Galilee, sees two fishermen, Simon and Peter, and calls them to follow him. They drop what they’re doing, mending their nets, and follow him. They leave their jobs, their wives, their children, their nets, their boats, the only place they have ever lived, and run after Jesus.

I worked at various jobs every summer and after school from about the age of 12. I was in the office at the YMCA, learning to type, mimeograph–there’s a skill no longer useful–organize bulk mailings, in another office where I took orders and sold engineering equipment, learning how to conduct business on the phone, and was a soda jerk and short-order cook. I had a friend whose father was an undertaker, so I helped out there–mainly in shipping and receiving, as some wag put it.

I was a summer intern at the Cities Service research and development lab. I noticed that the lab tech did most of the work, while the Ph.D.’s sat around, took long breaks, double lunches, and the like. One day, the lab tech said to me, “You see who does all the work around here. Stay in school.” I spent one summer as a laborer in heavy construction, hauling 12-inch cinder blocks, and pushing large buggies filled with concrete up less than stable ramps. I made good money, but vowed to stay in school. Another summer, I was on the ground crew of a high-tension tower construction company. We worked feverishly the first and last hours of the day, but spent most of the time standing there looking up at the linemen. It was easier work, almost as well paid as the previous job, but I thought I’d stay in school. I helped install Culligan water softeners. Anything that paid, basically, I would do.

Another summer, I painted at a high school, and drove a school bus and a garbage truck–I liked that a lot more than I thought I would–but still vowed to stay in school. In college, I collected laundry and dry cleaning for a local company, and then went on to washing dishes in the dining hall–a skill I still practice. That’s what I was doing when I learned that JFK was shot. I taught school, two years in Nepal and one year in New Jersey, then answered The Call, which in my case wasn’t to fulltime teaching.

For me, The Call did not come as suddenly and unexpectedly as it had for Robbie Patton. I’d probably been edging toward it, but thinking about and obviously trying other things for ten or more years. When I graduated from seminary, my oldest classmate was 27. Ten years later, the average seminarian was 38-40 years old. I was 53 and had been ordained for 25 years when I hired my first paid clergy assistant, Bruce Geary, who had just graduated from seminary. He was 52 when he came here.

Bruce’s situation was more like the one described in today’s gospel. He was a banker, established in his career in Philadelphia. He owned a house in the suburbs. He had a wife and five kids–what Zorba the Greek calls “the full catastrophe.” He was by temperament more prudent than adventurous. The thought of going back to school scared him. Nonetheless, he and Karen decided to answer. I would have had trouble making a similar radical change, I suspect

I know some of your stories, but probably not the majority. I know people who have switched into teaching at what one friend of mine calls “a riper age.” This involved going back to school. A friend of mine from Peace Corps days quit his job as a carpenter–he had even built his own very nice house–and became a stock broker. I would never have predicted it, but it proved to be his true calling. If you’re feeling adventurous–or if you suddenly find yourself fired and out of work, which has happened to me–then it’s never too late to try something new.

So what is it about vocation, call, profession, career, come up with your own term, that is special? Vocation and call are related words. What keeps coming back to you–or did before the two (or more) roads diverged? What are you called to do? Why? Who is calling?

There was a wonderful book written by Studs Terkel years ago called Working. He interviewed dozens of people about what they did, how they got into it, what they got out of it, whether they thought what they did was worthwhile, whether they’d choose the same path again. I would add to that, what does what you do relate to serving God or serving other people?

If it became clear that Jesus is calling you to a new life, how would you respond? What call do you hear?

Let me close with the words of a former Amherst College professor:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

— Robert Frost