Sunday, January 31, 2010

Call: It's Not Just For Prophets Anymore

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany – Year C (RCL)
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30
Sunday, January 31, 2010 –
Trinity, Redlands

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you” (Jer. 1:5)

In these words from our Old Testament lesson, we hear God’s calling of Jeremiah to be a prophet at a most critical time in Israel’s history. The Northern Kingdom of Israel has already been decimated by the Assyrians. And now the Southern Kingdom of Judah is facing similar troubles. Someone is needed to for the difficult work of delivering God’s warnings to Judah in the run-up to the Babylonian Exile. And God chooses Jeremiah.

But Jeremiah is reluctant to accept God’s call. “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But this is not about age. Jeremiah resists because he doesn’t think he is up to the task, that he does not have what it will take to do what God is asking. But God sees what Jeremiah does not see. God sees that Jeremiah has the requisite gifts and talents to carry this off. First and foremost, Jeremiah is from a priestly family. He has grown up steeped in the story of Israel and the centrality of its relationship with God. This will allow him to convey God’s message to the people in ways they will hopefully understand – relating it to the unique position that Israel holds as God’s Chosen People. Jeremiah does not see this, but God does. Hence God’s response: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.”

Because of God’s insistence, because of God’s assurance that He will provide Jeremiah with what is needed for the task at hand, Jeremiah acquiesces. And with the help of God, he goes on to become one of the greatest prophets in Israel’s history. He is able to prophesy of the paradoxical power of God – the power that plucks up but also plants, the power that destroys but also builds up, the power of death but also life, the power of judgment but also of salvation. But even so, Jeremiah did not have an easy time of it. He first prophesies in his home town of Anathoth, provoking the anger of his fellow villagers and his family. He then moves on to other areas, in hopes that someone might hear God’s words and heed their warning. His prophecies are of judgment, yet containing seeds of hope. Indeed his prophecies turn to portents of hope as the Exile eventually nears its end – hope of a return of Judah to its homeland, hope of reconciliation with their God. While Jeremiah’s initial prophecies are not heeded by the people, his latter prophecies help them get through the remainder of the Exile, keeping the hope alive.

While Jeremiah’s story is extraordinary in many ways, in other ways, his story, particularly the story of his call, is also our story. We are tempted to think of call, of vocation, as something reserved for the great figures in the history of our faith – Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, and Isaiah; Mary, John the Baptist, Peter, and Paul. Or at most, we might expand the concept to include “professionals” in matters of religion – people who make their living doing churchy stuff – people like monks and nuns, bishops and priests, people like me, like Father David. But that’s not the case. We don’t have exclusive rights. We don’t have a corner on that market. You see, we all have a calling. It may not be to Holy Orders. It may not be as a prophet. But we all have some sort of calling, something that God is inviting us to do for the service and fulfillment of His Kingdom. And the key to that, I believe, is in God’s words to Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.”

These words from the Book of Jeremiah have always spoken to me, although I have not always known why. But about ten years ago, I was required to do something that helped me figure out how God’s words to Jeremiah apply to me. When you begin the process toward Holy Orders, you are required to write a “spiritual autobiography,” that, at least in part, traces your sense of call. I used, as the opening for my spiritual autobiography, God’s words to Jeremiah. As I reflected on these words and reflected on my life to that point, I came to realize that, while what God was calling me to do may or may not have begun in the womb, it was at the very least evident (in hindsight) from early in my life. It felt as if this was what I had been consecrated to ultimately do. I can’t help but believe that the same is true for every person in this room. There is a calling – something special that God wants of you; something only you can do. Maybe you’re already doing it. Maybe you have no clue what it is – yet. Maybe you’re struggling with discernment, trying to get a clearer picture of what that calling might be, what form it might take.

As Hermann Hesse writes, “There are many types and kinds of vocations, but the core of the experience is always the same; the soul is awakened, transformed, or exalted so that instead of dreams and presentiments from within, a summons comes from without; a portion of reality presents itself and makes a claim” (Beckmann, 94-95). The response to that call from without, to that portion of reality making its claim, requires that we spend time examining how that call might take shape. It requires reflection – reflection on who we are, reflection on our roles in the world, reflection on the inherent gifts that we can give back to the world. For our call ties in with where we are right now, with what we are already doing. Our life to this point, our life from the womb to the present, has been preparing us, leading us, to what God is ultimately calling us to do. God prepares us to live out the vocation He calls us to, the calling for which we were born, through each step we take, through every role that we take on. Even if it doesn’t seem like what you are doing in your life right now is a calling from God, I would say, “think again.” Reflect on your life as it is and see just how you are living God’s call. As one commentator noted, “It is the invitation to every Christian to witness to the gospel by investing with radical grace whatever worldly roles God opens to us.” Whatever role. No matter how grand, no matter how small. After all, “as Martin Luther so famously said about parenthood, when understood as Christian vocation, even changing dirty diapers is done for the glory of God!” (Davis, 292).

And of course, as we reflect, as we pray, as we discern how God’s call is prompting us to move into new areas, to engage in new activities, we may have a sense of uneasiness. Jeremiah shows us that fear, anxiety, self-doubts, resistance, even resentments, are natural and understandable reactions when God issues a call to engage in His work. But as is also shown through Jeremiah, both the calling and the capacity to fulfill that calling come directly from God. God uses who we are. God uses what we already have – our gifts and talents. And when necessary, God provides what additional resources we may need. So while it may be scary or uncomfortable, we can rest assured that when God calls us, we do not go it alone. He will be with us to guide and aid us as we fulfill that calling.

And sense of calling does not just apply to individuals. God also calls groups of people collectively to specific vocations. We are seeing that process at work here at Trinity. Our Strategic Planning process is one of on-going discernment as to what God is calling us to be and do, where God is calling us to go. Just because the Strategic Plan document is done does not mean we can stop. It’s just the beginning of the discernment process. In fact, the first few objectives to be tackled specifically deal with discerning our mission, both within Trinity and in the broader community.

This may be a little uncomfortable for some of us – having to step outside our comfort zones and engage in ministry out in the world. But that’s what God is calling us to do. In fact, that’s what the Gospel requires of us. In today’s Gospel lesson, we see the people of Nazareth getting all riled up and upset at Jesus. Why? Because he was pushing them outside their comfort zones. The Jewish people had always believed that God’s grace and blessings were reserved for them, God’s Chosen – for those inside their borders. But Jesus is telling them that God’s grace extends outside their boundaries. He cites examples of how and where God has worked to the benefit of outsiders: the feeding of the widow of Zaraphath, the healing of the widow’s son, the healing of Naaman the Syrian. The people of Nazareth don’t want to hear this. They don’t want to accept this. They want to keep God’s blessings for themselves.

Now I know the people of Trinity are not like the people of Nazareth. We are willing to share God’s grace, God’s abundance, with those outside our boundaries, outside our walls. We don’t fly into rages when such things are suggested. But we may be a little fearful about the prospect. It may be a little uncomfortable. But we know there are very real needs out there – needs that we can help meet. There is a hunger for God’s word out there, a hunger for tangible experiences of the presence of God and of Jesus Christ – a hunger that we can help fill. We’ve seen that in recent months. We perceived a need to provide a worship experience for those who find Christmas a difficult time. So we gave Blue Christmas a shot. And people from outside our walls came. Not a lot. But they did come, and they were fed, experiencing God as they had not experiences Him before. We perceived a need to join with other churches and do a community Las Posadas. We didn’t think a lot of people would join in. But they did. Hundreds more than any of us expected. As a result of our initiative, 500 people were fed with the experience of God’s love, and with tamales and empanadas. Was it uncomfortable doing these new things? You bet it was! But what we saw was that when we were called to something in particular, God gave us what we needed. He showed us people in our midst who had the talents and gifts needed to pull it off. He moved people from outside Trinity to offer their needed services. God provided what we needed to fulfill the calling. And God provided in abundance.

I have a feeling this is going to be a very fruitful year for Trinity – both as a faith community and for the individuals who comprise this parish. We already see the Holy Spirit moving through the community, stirring things up, prompting individuals and this parish as a whole to explore new ministries. And I see the Spirit moving more and more in the coming weeks and months and years, as we implement our Strategic Plan. We will continue to discern God’s calling, pushing us, but all the while, providing what we need when we need it. God is going to be very busy in this place. And so are we, as we accept his call. And we will rise to the occasion, as individuals and as a community. Because this is what God has formed us to do. This is what our lives have been leading us to. This is what God has consecrated us to do.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Beckmann, Kim L., et al. New Proclamation: Year C, 2009-2010, Advent through Holy Week. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.

Davis, James Calvin. “Jeremiah 1:4-10, Theological Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, Volume 1, Advent Through Transfiguration. Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

No comments: