A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 3, 2013
Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector
The word of the LORD came to me saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the LORD said to me,
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you,
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the LORD.”
Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me,
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”
Once I began to study the prophet Jeremiah in seminary, it didn’t take me long to like him. In fact, it only took me 6 verses, and we just heard them. We heard Jeremiah respond to God’s call to him to be a prophet and his response was as human as it gets. He said: “No way!”
Well, he didn’t exactly say “No way!” but I think that’s what he meant. What he said was: “Ah, Lord God, truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (1:6). Jeremiah needed an excuse for turning God down; and he basically used the same excuse Moses used when God called him to be a prophet.
Although Moses didn’t plead youth and inexperience, he did plead slowness of speech and tongue (Exodus 4:10) which was his version of saying “No way!” to God. We humans are really good at coming up with excuses for getting out of doing things we don’t want to do. We learned to do that way back in grade school when we didn’t want to do our homework and then didn’t have anything to hand in the next day.
I’m sure teachers have heard just about everything when it comes to excuses such as: the electricity went out in our house last night; or my parents punished me and I wasn’t allowed to do my homework; or my little sister scribbled all over it while I was watching t.v. And of course probably everyone’s favorite excuse: the dog ate it!
As Jeremiah found out rather quickly, excuses didn’t work well with God. Moses found that out, too, when God told Moses that if he couldn’t speak to the Israelites, then he’d get his brother, Aaron, to do it. As it turned out, neither Moses nor Jeremiah had a choice in the matter of God’s call of them. God had planted those seeds of call a long time ago. “Before I formed you in the womb,” God told Jeremiah, “…I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (1:5).
So when Jeremiah said “No” to God, God said “Yes!” to Jeremiah and furthermore said: “You will go where I send you and you will speak as I command you to speak” (paraphrased 1:6). There were good reasons why Jeremiah didn’t want to be a prophet and you’ve heard some of them if you’ve been to any of our classes on the prophet, Amos.
Prophets were agents of sometimes brutal change. Their words, which were actually God’s words, had a certain sting to them, a certain urgency which made them difficult to say and to hear. Yet what was always behind the harsh rhetoric, and often not obvious, was God’s steadfast love for the Israelites. If God hadn’t loved them so much, He wouldn’t have cared enough to choose prophets to tell them what they needed to hear to correct their wayward behavior.
As we learn later in the book of Jeremiah, the prophet eventually said “Yes” to God’s call of him but only after he heard God’s promise. “Do not be afraid” God said, “for I am with you” (1:8). God said the same words to Moses (Exodus 4:13) and he also said them to the prophet Isaiah (41:13). And through the angel Gabriel, God told Mary not to be afraid when she heard that she would bear God’s son (Luke 1:30). Those words “for I am with you always” seemed to soften the blow of unexpected and difficult messages and prepare the seeds of call to germinate.
Divine messages, or calls, can be significant experiences and most people assume that all clergy have had such experiences – some even involving elaborate dreams or visions. Sometimes that happens. Other times the call can be experienced as a gentle but persistent persuasion. My oldest sister was ordained an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Massachusetts 1990 and as close as we are, I’ve never asked her about her call experience. It has always seemed so obvious to me that she would be a minister because of her compassion and her heart that is so clearly oriented toward being a servant.
She’s never asked me about my call experience either. Although I’m convinced she planted some spiritual seeds of her own in me, I doubt if she really expected them to grow. My heart was clearly oriented to the secular world. I think that’s why I like Jeremiah so much. His call, like mine, seemed to come out of the blue and his first reaction of “No way!” was mine as well.
My preaching and worship professor in seminary told me one day that she has always been somewhat disappointed that she had no dramatic experience of call – no blinding light, no bolt of lightening, no writing on the wall. But then she told me that’s it’s not how God calls us that matters, but rather how we respond to that call.
Barbara Brown Taylor explored the meaning of call in her book The Preaching Life. She insists that God does not just call us once, but many times. She wrote: “…Sometimes those calls ring clear as a bell, other times they are barely audible. But in any case, we are not meant to hear them by ourselves. It was part of God’s genius” she continues, “to incorporate us as one body so that our ears have other ears, other eyes, minds, hearts and voices to help us interpret what we have heard.”
That seems to be a slightly different take on what we have been hearing from the apostle Paul the last two Sundays about what he thought it meant to be the body of Christ – about the fact that we all have various gifts that are equally as important to the body whether we perform the function of a foot or an eye or an arm.
What I think they are both saying is that it takes the whole body to discern if we are called to serve and how to do it. What has been your experience with God’s call of you and with whom have you shared it? It certainly doesn’t have to be a call to ordained ministry nor does it have to be a call to achieve greatness. God’s call can manifest itself in a strong interest or passion in something, or it can be a thought that just won’t go away. It can be an epiphany of some sort, too, which would be perfect for this time of year!
Using Jeremiah’s experience as an example, we know that calls usually take us by surprise and sometimes run counter to everything that we know and believe about ourselves. But in the end, God is the one knowing us so well and believing in us and preparing us for our calling. It’s God’s invitation to us individually and as the church to find strengths and talents we might not even know we have and to offer them in service to others.
Both the call and the capacity to fulfill that call come from God; and if we have the assurance that we have nothing to fear because God is with us, how can we respond in any other way but “Yes”?
As we heard this morning, God appointed Jeremiah “over nations and kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10). God sows seeds in every one of us, yet when and how those seeds germinate depend on what our experiences have been and how they have formed us, and how receptive we are to God’s plans for us.
I believe St. Mary’s is a safe and nurturing place to have those seeds germinate and to try out what we believe God is calling us to do. I’ve seen shy individuals become confident lay readers and Lay Eucharistic ministers. I’ve seen parents, who at first seemed intimidated in our Sunday school rooms, become effective teachers. I’ve seen newcomers find fellowship in the kitchen and go on to become heads of committees, and I’ve seen high schoolers mentoring young acolytes.
I’ve seen seemingly complacent individuals burn with a passion for Outreach and those who have had their lives changed here speak out confidently for Stewardship. And I’m convinced that what I have witnessed is not for purposes of over-achievement or power or recognition. I’m convinced it’s because they have decided that it’s not so important what we do in response to God’s call but that we do it and do it in a way that as John Calvin wrote, “will shine and be reckoned very precious in God’s sight” (Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960) 3.5.10.). Amen.