Rooted and Grounded in Love

Roderic P. Frohman Third Presbyterian Church
June 24, 2012 Joshua 4:16-24; I Kings 19:9-12; Romans 12:1-101


Last Sunday morning I was sitting in RIT Professor Emeritus Dane Gordon’s class in Johnston Hall as he was finishing up his final presentation on Christian creeds. As he was quoting Augustine and Athanasius and Elaine Pagels I suddenly found myself sitting in a classroom at Princeton seminary in 1967 listening to George Hendry talk about the theology of God, usually pronounced with serious gusto. That was more than 45 years ago and I couldn't help but think, “Wow! I think I would like to go back to seminary and start all over again!” I’d like to brush up on my Greek and Hebrew. Engage in conversations over coffee with students about the eschatological angst of God; the incredible diversity of Christian origins; look at what is next for the Presbyterian Church. As I sat there and listened to Dane and his enthusiasm, I discovered that, like him, the fire still burns very deeply within me.

This kind of burning can be summarized in the words “calling” or "vocation." And, so we're clear about vocation, it’s not just for ministers anymore. It’s for all of us. As a matter of fact, it has always been for all of us. Indeed, it was John Calvin in the 16th century who suggested that the highest calling one could have from God would be that of a magistrate, a member of the city council, of Geneva, Switzerland. From the beginning, politics for Presbyterians has never been dirty.

Based upon the assumption that Christian calling is for all of us whether we are members of city Council or, a director of Christian education, an executive of a Presbytery, a hospital nurse, a director of a nonprofit job retraining organization, or someone who manages storage space in “the cloud,” this call is for you. And I was not exaggerating when I talked to the children during the children’s sermon about the trap door on top of my head which I first discovered when I was about five years old. Incidentally, the trap door still works. Plus it is a lot easier for God to find me now-a-days.

I remember being pretty jacked up about having a sense of the call to ministry when I was 17. I was working in a camp and conference center near Santa Cruz, California waiting tables for the summer and had viewed a film about the legacy of Jerusalem. So I rushed over to see the conference director the following morning, a man named Bill Gwinn, and said, “Bill, I saw that movie last night and I think God is calling me to the ministry.” Bill smiled and looked at me and said, “Rod at this point maybe what we should just call it “vocational Christian service.” It was somewhat of a let-down, but not quite as blunt as the retort by my pastor-father when I called him a few hours later and said, “Dad, I think God is calling me to go to seminary.” After what seemed to be an interminable silence, he responded, “Really, how you going to pay for it?”

Neither of these mentors jumped up and down and shouted, “You go boy!” But rather both understood a deep principle that underlies all calls from God, and that is, it is not something that happens just in isolation, nor is it easy, no matter whether it is a call to home construction or congregational construction. Calls are often filled with conflicts of choice that have significant, life changing, consequences. Vocational calls from God are inconvenient. And if they’re not inconvenient they’re probably not calls from God.

All three Scripture lessons this morning focus on these dynamics.

In the first story we have the classic saga of the people of Israel who have escaped out of Egypt. After wandering in the desert for 40 years they have now just crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land. In case inquiring minds want to know, this is part of the Deuteronomist historical revision of the ancient stories. (The New Interpreter's Bible. Vol. II. p. 561 c. 1998, Abingdon Press.) It is 1200 BC, the beginning of the Iron Age. There are new challenges ahead, such as the Battle of Jericho, but in the meantime it was important to stop and look back and reflect on how Joshua and the Israelites had gotten as far as they had. And celebrate!

And so in classic Iron Age style these nomadic people placed 12 stones in a circle, a cairn, to symbolize a new unity among a diverse group of 12 different ethnic, geographic, family and religious traditions. And, yes, you guessed it; it was a good, old-fashioned amphictyony. Note that as these are stones of diversity, they are also stones of unity. And as the Deuteronomic historian is reshaping this saga he is clearly reminding both his first audience, as well as us, that God calls a variety of people together. We are not alone as we hear the call of God to vocation, nor are we ever alone as we work it out.

I remember when I first appeared before the candidates committee of the Presbytery of San Francisco and told them that God had called me to the ministry. Their response was, “Good! We'll be the judge of that!” In Old Testament terms they said, “Presbyterians are an amphictyony, there are other rocks in our cairn; there are other ways to verify your call besides your perceptions.”

The second story in the Scripture lesson comes 400 years later from what is known as the “Elijah cycle:” theological commentary in saga and legend about a famous prophet named Elijah who lived in the 9th Century BC. Now Elijah is in deep trouble because he has ticked off the Queen of the northern kingdom of Israel who is the original Jezebel.

Put simply, Jezebel and her husband, King Ahab, liked their religion a bit spicy, and mixing worship of God with the fertility deities of their surrounding culture. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what they were doing in worship. Elijah had spent a lot of time hammering away at Ahab and Jezebel and, in our story, we find him on the run, hiding in a cave in the mountains. Elijah is discouraged and there is a significant tone in the story that Elijah may have been a little bit too zealous. He has been on the run for 40 days and 40 nights. If it sounds a little bit like a Moses story it is intended to be so.

So, we have Elijah sitting on a mountain top watching a storm go by. Keep in mind that the metaphor of the storm in Israelite literature is often synonymous with the voice of God. The story tells of a powerful wind which breaks rocks in pieces, there is an earthquake and a fire, but the voice of God is NOT found in any of these traditional pyrotechnic epiphanies. And after the storm is gone there is “sheer silence,” or as some translations suggest, “A still small voice.” And from that still small voice a new call comes to Elijah, “go return on your way….” Or, “Get back in the mix, Elijah.”

So, not only does the call from God come to us among all the variety of stones of witness but the call of God is almost always a whisper, or the sheer silence of intuition or conscience. The call from God to Elijah reminds us that God seldom shouts. If we experience the call from God as loud and certain, it is probably not the call from God.

In our third story in the New Testament, in the book of Romans, we have one of the earliest pieces of Christian literature, a letter from St. Paul to the several house churches in the city of Rome in 58 A.D., or about 25 years after Jesus. It is the beginning of the second Christian generation. In this historical context the early Christian church stands between two cultures, the culture of their origins in the synagogue from which they are reluctantly parting, and classical polytheism. There were as many statues of Roman and Greek deities on their ancient streets as we have parking meters.

To these small house churches, which desperately want to be successful and gain converts in their cultural setting, Paul cautions about becoming too closely identified with one culture. And so he says, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” The word, “transformed” in the Greek is the word that we use for metamorphosis; as in the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly. So we have memorial stones, a whisper, and a metamorphosing caterpillar. All of the metaphors are about vocation. All of them are about the call of God to each one of us.

However, there is an incredible danger to all of this calling and vocation business because it is very easily distorted into the narrowness of isolated egotism from which I have not been immune.

In the fall of 1967 I was one of five 21-year-old Cal, Berkeley graduates, all members of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, who got on the same airplane and flew to Princeton to go to seminary. I alone survived to graduate. To me it was like going from the frying pan into the refrigerator. Princeton was no Berkeley. LBJ was escalating the Vietnam War, and Martin Luther King Jr. was escalating the nonviolent civil rights movement. Students were in the streets. Six months after entering seminary, in April of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Three months later Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.

I returned to Berkeley in the summer of 1968 to work for First Presbyterian Church as a street minister in the university community. It was volatile, highly volatile. Somebody bombed the Naval ROTC building on the campus. There were dozens of street protests, almost a protest per week. There were clashes between students and the police and I was in the middle of it, wearing my clerical collar, trying to live out the new Presbyterian Confession of 1967, trying being a mediating presence between protesters and police. There were provocateurs on both sides of the protest lines. I was becoming more and more radicalized.

When I got back to Princeton in the fall I began to participate regularly with Princeton University Students for a Democratic Society, SDS. Part of a theological education in that context was sitting in seminary classrooms with Professor Richard Shaull, who brought liberation theology to America from his experience as a missionary in Brazil. Parallel to the study of Greek and Hebrew was the reading of Marxist theologians and their interpreters.

As American society was being pulled apart as its seams I began to see myself, in the words of St. Paul, as not being “conformed to this world,” the world of racist, imperialist capitalism. I saw myself being transformed into a Christian Marxist. In the spring of 1969, SDS members at Princeton began to wear a little button that said, “Join the Party.” It wasn’t the Democratic Party. It was the Communist Party.

There were two significant friends in my life then. One was Timothy Njoya, a young Presbyterian pastor from Kenya who later became the pastor of the Kihumo Presbyterian Church of Nairobi with whom Third Church is now a partner in mission. Tim and I had long conversations over Kenya tea. He helped me to see why democracy, not communism, would work in post-colonial Kenya, which at that time had been free of English colonialism for only five years.

The other was a favorite seminary professor, Charles West, who was deeply involved in the Marxist-Christian dialogue. Prof. West had been a professor in a seminary in China and even stayed after the fall of Chiang Kai-shek. He had personally met both Mao Zedong and Chou En Lai. It was “Charlie,” as we affectionately called him, who conversed with me and fed me a stack of books that kept me from joining with my SDS friends in what I came to recognize as their fundamentalist lurch into totalitarianism.

Two years later, when it came time for my public statement of faith to the Presbytery of New Brunswick, I was accused by a local pastor as being a communist. Dr. West rose from his seat, walked to the microphone and slowly intoned, “Mr. Frohman has an interesting way of saying things but he is only slightly left of neo- orthodoxy.” The whole assembly erupted in laughter and the vote to sustain my statement was unanimous. Dr. West was, and continues to be, (he is in his late 80’s) an anchoring stone, a mile marker, a quiet voice, who helped me keep a Christian and transformative perspective in a society convulsed by massive cultural storms. Some of you have probably met Charles West from time to time and do not know what an amazing theologian he is. He is the grandfather of Third Church members Caroline and Russell West and the father-in-law of Betsy Marvin.

Listening to the voice of God can be a very risky, life-changing business. I thank God that I have never been alone.

Indeed none of us are left alone. Among my more favorite things to do in this sanctuary is to look at our stained glass windows. The ancient Israelites had a circle of memorial stones that told their history. We have memorial melted stones, stained glass windows. (Glass is melted sand.) Like the Israelites, we too worship in the context of memory and hope. [There is a marvelous section of our church website, to which I commend you, which is based upon the work of our Pastor Emeritus William Young and the photography of David Reed, Janet Reed’s late husband.] There are an incredible variety of people featured in these windows. They understood themselves as stones in this congregation, who listened to the still small voice, and helped build a congregation that has transformed this city.

Some of these people we know, like in this window (lazar pointer points to bell balcony) given by Emily Betts Lommis in memory of her husband, Horace, who died in 1908. In 1912 Emily married the widowed minister of Third Church, Paul Moore Strayer, and our famous social gospel pastor.

But most of the people in these memorial melted stones we do not remember, like the three windows in the west balcony. (Point with lazar pointer) They were given by the wife of Emmett H. Hollister in memory of her husband (1829-1871). Emmett was the owner of Hollister lumber company, was the president of the YMCA in Rochester, an elder in this congregation who died at age 41 from typhoid fever. (THE FRIENDS OF MOUNT HOPE CEMETERY Vol. 21 NO.3 SUMMER 2001) The window is beautiful but his name forgotten and he has just faded into the stained-glass.

The Mary, Martha and Jesus window (lazar point to sanctuary right wall) symbolizes the contemplative and active life which was combined in the life of Dorothy Harvie who died 1965. Very few of us knew Dorothy. She also has faded into the stained-glass almost sixty years ago.

It is very humbling to know how easily we will all fade into the stained-glass. I got to thinking, what if Third Church decided to put up a stained-glass window for me, who would remember me sixty years from now? Probably very few, so don’t bother. I only came 14 years ago. At that point Braden Apt was in utero. Now look at him there in the balcony. He’s almost as tall as his father. In sixty years Braden will be 74 years old. And I can imagine Braden taking his grandchildren by the Rod Frohman Memorial window and saying to his grandkids, see that man's name, I was a baby in the church when he first came. To which his grandchildren will say, “Grandpa, can we go for lunch now?”

We will all fade into the stained glass. If we’re interested in following the call of God into a vocation in or out of the church, we need to get over the idea that people will remember us because of it. Paraphrasing Psalm 90 Isaac Watts, the hymn-writer reminds us, “Time like and ever rolling stream soon bears us all away. We fly forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day.”

One of the voices that has always been in my head and indeed continues to be, is that of my Mom. It was she who was present in that public park in 1950 when I learned about the trap door on top of my head. It was she whom I watched as a small boy feed the “hobos,” as we called them then, the homeless men who knocked on our back door asking for some food. She fed them from our “icebox,” as it was called then, with our own chicken and bread from our own breadbox. She had a slogan on a plaque in our kitchen wall in the little town of Eaton, Colorado. “Only one life will soon be passed, only what’s done for Christ will last.” Even though she has only been dead a little more than a decade, she, too, is beginning to fade into the stained-glass of family memory. Which is why her advice about Christian vocation is so important, “…only what's done for Christ will last.”

Over the last fourteen years I have been privileged to look at the sanctuary windows primarily from this chancel perspective. Given the architecture of our sanctuary almost all of you look directly forward and you see the stained-glass window in front of you in splendid detail. There you can see

Robert Raikes, teaching the first Sunday School class in England; John Woolman, the American Quaker, who worked for the emancipation of slaves in the eighteenth century; Charles G. Finney, a preacher in this congregation in the early 19th century who was an abolitionist and a tee-totaler. Florence Nightingale, Civil War nurse, Jane Adams, founder of Hull House in Chicago, and Walter Rauschenbusch, professor at Rochester Theological Seminary, the developer of the social gospel. These are most worthy models for Christian vocation. And notice that many of them were NOT ministers.

But it is the stained glass window in the East Avenue balcony that for fourteen years has been in my vocational view. It is Christ carrying his cross and pointing to his flowers to the future. And if you don’t mind I would like to ask you all to turn around and look at it for a few seconds.

[At this point Rev. Frohman exited the pulpit and sat down, indicating the end of the sermon.]

 

 

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