All Call

When Central member BJ Eaton sensed a call to ministry and enrolled in Princeton Theological Seminary, he was bucking a cultural trend.  Presbyterians —as well as other Protestants and Roman Catholics—are experiencing a decline in numbers of men and women entering seminary headed for ordained pastoral ministry. The other end of the pipeline is diminished also, and mid-sized and smaller congregations are facing real challenge finding and keeping pastors. There are plenty of reasons for this, of course.  And there are many innovative responses, such as church mergers and leadership-sharing and creative new worshiping communities like those being planted by Evan Amo and Bethany Peerbolte that focus on building community, not buildings.

The situation is not new. Our morning Scripture text offers Jesus’ diagnosis of the problem and treatment. But let’s not be too quick in concluding that it would make a great marketing campaign for Princeton.  There’s more going on here than a plea to become a pastor. A reading from the good news according to Matthew, in the ninth chapter, verses 35 through 38. Listen for God’s Word to us…all. [Matthew 9:35-38]  The word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

In a story dear to this baseball-lover’s heart, I learned recently about the Rev. William Greason, pastor at Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. For more than 50 years, he has served that congregation:  officiating weddings, baptizing children, lifting spirits through loss, and preaching God’s Word in every season. But long before that, Greason was a baseball player, and 75 years ago shut down the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro American League championship series and gave the Birmingham Black Barons their the only appearance in the Negro World Series. Back then he was a lanky right-handed pitcher with a devastating curve ball, and one who did his homework.  “Before games,” he said, “I’d go over the whole lineup and ask myself, ‘How are you going to pitch’em?’ So when I got out on the field, I knew what to do.  I believed I could get anybody out.” [New York Times, June 5, 2023]

Like many youth of his vintage, Greason grew up playing on sandlots in segregated cities, and in his teens showed promise in semipro ball. But World War II interrupted his ascent, and he became one of the first Black Marines. He served at Iwo Jima where he watched many of his fellow Marines die and was convinced he too would perish. He made a promise to do whatever God asked of him if he survived.

He returned to baseball after the war, and quickly worked his way through the minors until his contract was bought by the Black Barons. Joining a talented team, the 23-year-old won his first three starts—a newspaper called him “the Whiz Kid.” One teammate was a 17-year-old center fielder named Willie Mays. Mays wrote of Greason years later, “He was always careful to help me out when he could without calling attention to what he was doing.  He gave me respect and in turn helped me grow up.”

Greason and his wife lived in Birmingham and attended the 16th Street Baptist Church. On that horrific Sunday morning in 1963, when the Ku Klux Klan detonated a bomb in the church, killing four little girls, he was away playing baseball, but the tragedy created a defining moment. “All of a sudden,” Greason recalled, “The Lord spoke to me from within. God said, ‘It’s time.’” And he said yes.

As Greason’s 99th birthday approaches this fall, his life’s callings—-baseball and the Gospel—-are intersecting more than ever. On a bright Sunday morning not long ago, Greason preached, “God didn’t give you the ability to throw a baseball like he did to me. . . he gave you a gift that I can’t do nothing with!” [Ibid, pp D4-5]

And that, my friends, is the essence of what Jesus meant by sending out laborers into God’s harvest. You don’t have to be a preacher—-or a baseball stand-out—-to work for God.   You simply —well, I don’t know how simple it is, truth be told—-you have to say Yes to labor on God’s behalf, sharing the good news of God’s love, serving those who are in need, showing compassion to neighbors who are hurried and hassled and adrift, lost in a sea of competing urgencies and demands. And here’s the thing.  God has given you gifts and talents that ache to be expressed in life-giving labor no matter your profession, current employment, or retirement plan. Your passions are better served with purpose.  For something larger; for something greater. The late Presbyterian minister and best-selling author Frederick Buechner put it best:  The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

For William Greason, his love of baseball and the skill he developed playing it served a larger purpose, as he used them to nurture younger, rawer players with encouragement and support; as he helped demonstrate the ridiculous consequence of segregation that soon broke open the major leagues for all. And yes, God has used Rev. Greason as a faithful church pastor proclaiming “the rights of people and the word of God.”  But I don’t believe one is intrinsically more valuable than the other. The world needs passionate people who are kind and caring. In church, outside church, at the ballpark, in a brewery, at your kids’ school, in the boardroom and the bedroom, the clinic and grocery store, the halls of government, out on the farm, and well, everywhere.

The harvest is plentiful……there’s a world of hurt out there, and in here.

The laborers are few. . . .

Friends, can we hear in Jesus’ words a kind of “all call” — a broad and inclusive invitation to participate in God’s harvest?    Can we understand its claim on our lives beyond the narrow confines of the sanctuary to go out and labor for something bigger than institutional maintenance, but for the transformation of this beautiful and broken world?  When we follow the teaching and example of Jesus, we will find ourselves in places we couldn’t have imagined, with people we might not have chosen. We’ll be pursuing a vocation (the root word is “calling”) as we work our jobs, raise our children, build homes, balance spread sheets, market a business, provide care for sick patients, and enjoy a round of golf or an afternoon at the ballpark. God’s call to us does not divide our lives into “real life” and “church life”—-it’s all life. And it can be life-giving when it generates a sense of purpose and trust that it matters.

There is a life before you that only you can live.  Your particular gifts and more important, the unique person you are mean that God’s work needs you. Irreplaceable you. And every one of us is that person—a laborer for God’s harvest.

But please do not, do not leave worship this morning with a despairing feeling that now you have a longer “to do” list. It’s not about adding more work to your already-full plate.

It might mean re-prioritizing your commitments. And it might mean recognizing the gifted and grace-full person you are. You already have what it takes. Jesus’ invitation is to become part of a thrilling, life-giving mission with amazing companions. The community of faith amplifies God’s call, encourages us and holds us accountable, and cares deeply for the caregivers. We don’t have to go to Birmingham to find examples of these laborers. Here is retired Bill Jones, working hard with Jon Dreux to resolve the boiler situation, including the denied insurance claim. . . . Here is Edith Zemanick, a busy doctor, wife and mother, organizing a group of Central folk to be a presence at Gay Pride, demonstrating God’s love for LGBTQ+ neighbors. It’s Mercy, a visitor to our church, who showed up one morning to help Molly assemble sack lunches for the Women’s Homelessness Initiative. It’s you, diagnosing disease in a patient’s body and developing a treatment plan. . . it’s you, protecting a client’s right to due process regardless of guilt or innocence. . . it’s you, providing leadership on non-profit boards.  It’s you, also, if you’ve toyed with the idea of ordained pastoral ministry (though that’s just one of many ways to do God’s work).   Everyone of you has said “yes” —however tentatively or doubtfully—to God’s “all call” for workers.

The harvest is plentiful. . . . .My vivid picture of harvest is the annual wheat harvest out on the plains in Yuma County where I grew up. Over about a two-week period, the entire community was affected.  Cutting crews descended upon the town to assist farmers. Once wheat is ready there’s a certain urgency in getting it harvested and into the grain silos for shipping. Restaurants featured “to go” lunches you could purchase and take straight to the fields to keep the work going even through lunch breaks.  My sisters and I volunteered at a local day care center that provided free care for the children of seasonal migrants. And the whole town celebrated when the harvest was complete—you could feel the joy and relief as community effort secured the small town’s fortunes for another year.

Friends, the fields to which we are called are God’s. God will produce a harvest of peace and justice, with what you and I have to offer. So what are we waiting for?

Thanks be to God!