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The Call

August 26, 2013

“The Call” Jeremiah 1:1-10 © 8/25/13 Ordinary 21C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Ah, the job interview. The sports team try-out. The music audition. The standardized test or the final exam. The big project. The Serious Talk about the Future. Even young children here know what it’s like. Sweaty palms. Pacing. Waiting. Practicing, being tutored, rehearsing, memorizing. Not something any of us look forward to, but we do it because we have to in order to make progress in life, to get what we want or need.

So we can relate to a young man, still in his teens, in an imposing room centuries ago. A stern-faced and skeptical PNC—that’s “prophet nominating committee”—sits across the table from him. “Jeremiah, right?” “Yes.” “Tell us, have you ever worked with anything…holy?”

“Well, my father and his father before him were priests, and I’m beginning the training to follow in their footsteps.” “But you yourself have little experience in sacred matters.” “I guess that’s fair.” “Now, Jeremiah, where were your father and grandfather priests?” “In Anathoth, at the shrine. I’m from the tribe of Benjamin.” “I see,” says the moderator of the committee. “Jeremiah, I must be candid with you. I’m afraid we’re looking for someone with more experience and maturity, and your family connections…. Well, let’s just say that around here it doesn’t help that you’re related to the family of a king from a failed dynasty. We would rather our prophets be connected with the current royal line of David and the approved Temple at Jerusalem.”

So, Jeremiah leaves the interview and heads home, not sure now of what he will do. He knows in his bones that his destiny is to be a prophet, but the officials at the Temple were not encouraging. He was too young, too inarticulate, too this, too that. He sinks into his bed, afraid, uncertain, depressed.

Then, about 2 AM, he’s startled awake by his cell, playing “Joy to the World.” No, not that one; the other one, that begins, “Jeremiah was a bullfrog…” He liked a song that used his name.

The screen displays “unavailable” for the number. “Nobody I know would call at this hour,” he snaps. “I’m sorry to hear you don’t know me, Jeremiah. This is God.” “God. Creator of Heaven and Earth. That God?” “Yes.” “Right, sure you are. Is this some kind of joke? The people at the Temple told me you didn’t want me.” “You let me be the judge of that—and them. Here’s the deal. I’ve got a job for you. I won’t take no for an answer.” “But you heard what they said. I’m too young, don’t have enough training, don’t know how to speak.” “And you believe them?” “Well, yeah, I guess so.” “Tell you what, Jeremiah, you need to work on your self-esteem a little, but in the meantime, why don’t I just tell you what to say and you repeat it. Think you can handle that?” “Gee, I don’t know. Those people at the Temple might not like it if I start preaching, and they didn’t approve me. I could get into a lot of trouble.” “You let me take care of that. Don’t be afraid of them. I’ll stand behind you a hundred percent.” “OK, I believe you. I’ll take the job. By the way, what exactly will I be doing?” “Oh, your basic prophet stuff: tearing down, building up, overthrowing kings, proclaiming judgment, sharing a word of hope to people who will listen.”

Not an easy task that God gave the young prophet. If you’ve ever been entrusted with a big job despite your inexperience and/or youth or had it thrust upon you, then you know how he felt. Flattered that someone would trust him with such an awesome responsibility. But on the other hand, scared out of his wits by what lay ahead. His message would not be popular; telling the hard truth seldom is. And he would land in jail and encounter other hardships during his career. No doubt he longed at times to forego the bulk of his calling, the difficult business of plucking up, pulling down, destroying. The times were hard; his nation was a pawn in the larger world of politics, the conflict between the superpowers of the day, Egypt and Babylon. By the end of Jeremiah’s career, Jerusalem would be in ruins, with most of its population deported to a foreign land, to remain there for a generation. But if he were to be true to his calling, to fulfill the destiny that was his, he could do no other than preach the words put in his mouth when he was just a kid.

So goes the story. Of course, names and circumstances have changed over the centuries, but I believe there are a number of points of connection for us today. First, whoever we might be, all of us are called by God. It happens in baptism, when we are named and commissioned by the one who has redeemed us. And there may be other occasions, when we are summoned or at least invited to specific tasks. Maybe our sense of call grips us mightily or it may simply be an intuitive notion that we have a special destiny. It might even be a longing to make a difference or see a job through to completion, a conviction that no one else can do this task. And when I talk about “call,” please do not misunderstand. I don’t necessarily mean anything overtly religious or church-related. It’s not just preachers who are called. As poet John Dunne once said, “any honest calling is acceptable to God if God’s glory be intended in it.” Whether you’re selling or sewing, making things or marketing them, playing music or playing with kids, teaching or healing or helping, whatever you do, whatever I do, wherever we are, whoever we are, in all of life we are called of God to be his servants, to “intend his glory.”

Next, like Jeremiah, we have a word to hear and a word to speak. That Word is ever and always the supreme communication of God to us in Jesus Christ. We believe we encounter that Word in Scripture, the unique and trustworthy witness to Jesus Christ. We hear that word as well in our own experiences, through our intuition, through the sharing of people of other faiths or of no faith, always though held accountable to the Word in Christ. And though it may be phrased differently over the years and in different contexts, the message we proclaim is still that God is among us to uproot and overthrow, to build and to plant. God comes in justice and in mercy, with gift and demand. God uproots and pulls down when our deep prejudices and suspicions and our high walls and fences thwart community. He plucks up when we have become too settled and satisfied, when inertia has become our closest friend. He questions traditions as Jesus did, when however well-intentioned their origins, their maintenance becomes more important than people’s need. God builds when the edifice of our lives, which we once thought strong and sure, has crumbled around us. He plants when the seeds we have sown have withered and died without ever producing, and our hope is gone. He constructs a new world when all around us the old is gone, and we have no more reference points. He grows a tree of healing in our midst when we find ourselves in a barren waste. That is his word we hear; that is his word we tell.

So God calls us, to serve him in a myriad of ways in all of life. He gives us a word to speak and a word to trust. But he also reminds us that his criteria for selecting his servants are not those of the world. And that means they may not be what we expect, since we so often buy into the standards of the culture around us. God doesn’t care how old or young you are, what you look like or what kind of house you live in, what model car you drive or how many digital devices you’ve got. He’s not interested in your degrees or your resume. It doesn’t matter to God what color you are or where you come from or where you’ve been in the world. What God cares about is the willingness of your heart and mine to listen to him, to be faithful, to trust that whatever God has in mind for us, he will be with us to see it through.

And because God doesn’t look at the criteria we use, he also is not interested in our excuses for not serving. Jeremiah cited his youth and his inability to speak. We might get considerably more creative. “I’ve done my part.” “My schedule is too full.” “I don’t see what difference I can make.” “Please don’t ask me to visit the sick or the lonely. I wouldn’t have a clue what to say or do.” “Invite my neighbor to church? You’re talking to the wrong person.” “Me, teach church school or a study group? I wouldn’t know where to begin. I’m no Bible scholar.” “Sorry, my situation is too uncertain financially. I can’t commit to giving.” To which God replies, as it were, “do not say ‘I am only a boy,’ for you shall go to all to whom I send you and you shall speak….” Whatever our weakness or our strength, God can deal with it, God can use it.

Finally, we live and minister not in a vacuum but in real political, social, and personal circumstances. Jeremiah lived in a time when the fortunes of his nation went from dynastic glory to disastrous exile. He paid the price in personal sacrifice and emotional pain, but his calling was to be with his people in judgment and in hope. He remained with the lowest classes in a devastated Jerusalem. And of course, we believe our Lord to be God himself entering into human life and finally standing for all humanity to pay the price for human rebellion. When the church is at its best and most faithful, its ministry is as the theologian Karl Barth once described it: with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Today the only difference is that the paper is online on a tablet. And when we are at our best and most faithful personally, we stand with others in good times and bad, knowing that our Lord did the same.

I am reminded of two stories. One is of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You may recognize his name. He was a German theologian who opposed Hitler prior to and during WW2. He came to the US for safety, but ultimately returned to Germany while Hitler was still in power. In his book The Cost of Discipleship, he wrote: “I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share in the trials of this time with my people….Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thus destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make this choice in security” (17). You may know that Bonhoeffer because of his faith participated in a plot to kill Hitler, and was executed for it. He gave his life for the sake of the right and the good of his nation.

The other story is one I tell of myself, with a good bit of shame and regret, even at this great remove. In 1979, a hurricane hit Mobile, AL, where I was on staff with a church in my first call. When I heard that the hurricane was coming, I boarded up my apartment windows as best I could, and left town, headed to Atlanta and Columbia Seminary to see Becky, the young woman who was my girlfriend at the time. I have thought many times since then that the faithful thing to do would have been to stay, maybe spending that long night with friends in the church if I were afraid to be by myself in a storm of a sort I had never experienced. Then I could have been there the next morning to begin helping with clean-up, with checking on folk in the congregation, doing whatever I could to bring hope in the midst of destruction. But instead, the night the storm struck, I was having a nice dinner with a young woman in a restaurant in Atlanta, far from the howling wind. Maybe it served me right that the Atlanta visit was the beginning of the end for our relationship.

What Jeremiah and Jesus and Bonhoeffer did took courage. My actions were cowardly and selfish. Life poses choices to us like that more often than we want. Do we stay or run, fight or flee, stand for the right or remain silent or inactive? Our call is to be present with and in our world as the body of Christ. God is still incarnate, but now he lives in us.

Fred Pratt Green is one of the best of the contemporary hymn-writers. Perhaps he sums up all that has been said: “How clear is our vocation, Lord, when once we heed your call: to live according to your word, and daily learn, refreshed, restored, that you are Lord of all and will not let us fall. But if forgetful, we should find your yoke is hard to bear, if worldly pressures fray the mind and love itself cannot unwind the tangled skein of care: our inward life repair. We mark your saints, how they became in hindrances more sure, whose joyful virtues put to shame the casual way we wear your name, and by our faults obscure your power to cleanse and cure. In what you give us, Lord, to do, together or alone, in old routines or ventures new, may we not cease to look to you—the cross you hung upon—all you endeavored done” (“How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord,” 1981).

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