Saturday, January 30, 2016

You Want Me to Do What?

Jeremiah 1:4-10 / Luke 4:16-30
Ordinary 4
January 31, 2016
William G. Carter

Now 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.”

Know what kind of conversation I enjoy? When somebody tells you how they got into their life’s work.

Garret Keizer was finishing up a masters degree in English degree. He was thinking about going for a Ph.D., or perhaps law school. But the door that opened before him was a high school teaching job in northern Vermont, so he signed a contract and prepared to move. He was from New Jersey, so the move to a little town about ten miles south of the Canadian border was going to be a huge adjustment.

For some reason, not entirely obvious to himself, he stopped on the way for a few days in an Anglican monastery. The peace and quiet haunted him, and a couple of chance conversations seemed to get under his skin. At the end of his stay, he drove up to the part of Vermont that they call the Northeast Kingdom, and began to teach.

It went well enough. He and his wife settled into the community. Garret started going to a small Episcopal church, where he befriended the priest, Father Castle. Father Castle was a sixties radical. He marched with Dr. King, took part in an anti-war mass at the Pentagon, and got arrested standing by the Baby Jesus at the crèche of the National Cathedral. Now he was the part-time pastor of two little churches in towns that nobody could find. He coached the high school football team, and he became Garret Keizer’s friend.

At one point, Father Castle said, “You’re a good writer. Why don’t you write a sermon and preach it?” It was northern Vermont. They don’t have a lot of comparison shopping up there. Garret said, “Sure, why not?” He set out to write a sermon, then preached it, and thought, “I love doing this.” One thing led to another, and he became the part-time lay priest in Island Pond, Vermont, an old railroad crossroads town of six hundred souls.

In fact, the Episcopalians eventually had to create a job title for him, over some argument. They didn’t have part-time lay priests, but they did have a little congregation that they couldn’t find anybody else to serve, so that’s what he did. He taught high school English on the weekdays, preached and led worship on Sundays.

His story is now many years old, but it’s a story that we hear more and more. It’s difficult for little churches out in the country to pay their bills, much less find a preacher or priest. Churches that have wanted to continue into the future have had to find fresh ways to make it work, even when the officials in their denominations have blanched. Along comes a guy like Garret Keizer, who wrote a master’s thesis on the poetry of George Herbert, and somehow God connects him to Christ Episcopal Church of Island Pond, Vermont.

As he said, it was the furthest thing from his mind and it made all the sense in the world.

In the opening chapter of Jeremiah’s book, the prophet remembers how he became a prophet. God spoke to him somehow.  We don’t know if it was a big dramatic vision or the growing sense of what he would be doing with his life. I know, this is a Bible story, and we would like to think it was a big dramatic vision, but believe me when I tell you that big dramatic visions are often short on details. They don’t map everything out.

What Jeremiah recounts is a series of moves that are typical of most people who are trying to sort out what they must do with their lives. They get a sense that God knows who they are, what they are good at doing and what they are capable of doing. Then they get a sense that life has prepared them somehow for the task set out before them. And then when it hits them, they say, “No way! Lord, you have the wrong person.” Then somehow God overcomes the resistance and gives them the work to do.

That basic plot repeats itself over and over in the stories of the Bible. God says to ancient Abraham and Sarah, “I’m going to make you parents of a great multitude,” both of them laughed (Genesis 17:17, 18:12), and the baby came anyway. It was the first time they realized God was going to get his own way.

Moses heard God calling out from a burning bush. God said, “I have heard the cries of my people suffering in slavery, so I am sending you to lead them out.” Moses said, “Lord, I don’t talk pretty enough.”

Isaiah had a vision of God calling him preach and said, “Woe is me!” (6:1-8).Apparently he knew what was involved. Simon Peter talked back to Jesus in a fishing boat, and ended up saying, “Get away from me, Lord, I’m a sinful man” (Luke 5:1-11).

The apostle Paul writes from his prison cell to a young man named Timothy. He’s at the end of his time, and has been trying to nurture Timothy as a leader. He says, “Don’t let anybody put you down because of your youth, but set an example for believers in speech and conduct, in love, faith, and purity.” (1 Tim. 4:12). It is the same thing God says to Jeremiah in our text: “Don’t say you’re only a kid. I have work for you.” Apparently God never hears any new excuses.

What we encounter today is the mystery of God’s call. Somehow God may get through to us, grasp our attention, remind us how completely we are known, and then God calls us to serve in a way that intersects with our identity, our experience, our abilities, and the preparation that has been coming our whole life. The call God has for you is different from the call God has for the person next to you. All of us are different, but the call can come.

I like how Garret Keizer says it, from the pulpit of his Vermont church. “By being a lay minister, I can remind my parishioners that the practice of our religion will take place, for the most part, outside the church building. This is an obvious truth… but it is a truth that can be obscured by clerical professionalism. Fell-time ordained clergy often tend to remake parishioners in their own image… (We can’t) ignore the vital work people do in their own homes, communities, and places of employment.”[1]

He is exactly right. The purpose of our baptism is not merely to serve on a church committee or tidy up the pews when the service is over, even though these tasks are important too. In the largest sense, God’s call is living out the Gospel in the world. It’s living with faith, home, and love in the real world where we live and shop and work and babysit and make meals and clean them up and try to get along with our neighbors and loved ones.

It is often the case that’s where the real challenges are. When we take faith into the real world and out of the comfort of the sanctuary, that’s when we stumble over our words, or grumble that we are too young, or too old, or that we don’t know what to say and we feel totally inadequate. Jeremiah says it for us. God calls us to serve a world where the needs are a lot bigger than we are.

In fact, if you think the tasks on your plate are difficult, consider what Jeremiah is called to do. He is called to speak to his country of Judah of how God will send them into exile. For forty years, he’s going to tell the truth about God’s people serving false idols. The rich have ignored the poor in the name of greed. The powerful flourish on a network of lies, and everybody in the nation, he says, “have forgotten how to blush.” God called Jeremiah to say all of that.

You can imagine how it turned out. The prophet was attacked by his own brothers. He was beaten up by a priest, imprisoned by a king, thrown into an muddy well by politicians, and denounced by the happy preachers who said, “We have to shut that guy up and get everybody to look on the bright side of life.” If you ever think you have a lot about your life to complain about, read the book of Jeremiah.

And it’s Jeremiah who said, “God, you got me into this! I can’t even get out of it.”

But it is God, in the midst of our real feelings of fear and inadequacy, who touches our lips and gives us the words, and declares, “I am with you. This is my work. I’ll get you through this.”

There’s a woman who found herself taking care of her next door neighbor. It didn’t start that way, but Mary needed some small repairs done in her kitchen. She was getting forgetful. So Janet started stopping by. They built a strong friendship, and Janet helped out Mary however she could.

But then Mary got very sick. The doctor said she didn’t have a lot of time. Janet was bringing her meals, sometimes even spending the night on the couch and getting up whenever Mary needed her. It was wearing her out, and to make matters worse, Mary’s son wasn’t paying any attention to his mother. Janet knew him, but didn’t like him.  He seemed self-absorbed, unable to express any care for his mom. He would drive in  once a month, stay for an hour and look awkward, and drive home, while Janet took care of his mother.

One day, she said, “I let him have it.” She had prepared Sunday dinner for Mary and her son. Mary couldn’t keep the food down. Her son looked up from the New York Times while Janet was cleaning up the mess. “You know, I can’t do this anymore,” she said to him. “She’s not my mother, and this is not my responsibility.” He looked at her, stunned, and then he pulled on his coat and left.

Janet apologized to Mary and helped her get into bed. Then Mary clasped the wrists of her friend, looked into her eyes, and said, “I couldn’t do this without you.”

As Mary slept, Janet sat in the living room, sobbing. The lights were out, it was dark, and she was all by herself. She exhaled a deep breath, and said, “God, I guess you are telling me that this is the work I have to do right now. So you have to give me the strength to do it.”  

A month later, at Mary’s funeral, she stood and said, “What a privilege it was to love my friend and care for her until the end.” What made all the difference? You know what made the difference.

If God is going to set important work before us, then God must give us the strength and tenacity to do it. I think we can expect that of our Lord.  Life is not going to be easy much of the time. Speaking the truth, working for justice, loving our neighbors – none of that is easy, but it is some of the work God calls us to do.

Look at Jesus. His first sermon was a failure. He goes to the hometown synagogue, opens the scroll, reads the ancient words, sits down, and says, “It’s coming true today.” Everybody smiles and says, “We love our Jesus.” 

Then he tells them two stories out of their own Bible, of how God showed compassion to people who were not like themselves. Suddenly the air turns scarlet and they want to kill him. They drag him out of the synagogue, down the street, down to the steep hill on the edge of their town, and they get ready to dash him over the side.

Luke says that was his first sermon. And Jesus slipped out of their grip so he could keep preaching more of those sermons. Was he a failure? No. Because he did what God wanted him to do.

It is a mystery how God calls people like you and I to serve. Maybe we started teaching because the teacher didn’t show up. Maybe we offered somebody a ride and a whole new world of need presented itself. Maybe we spoke to the teenage whose name we didn’t know, and discover she needs a grownup friend. Maybe you deliver flowers to a hospital room and discover somebody needs you. Maybe, to your surprise, you learned that you were going to become a parent. Maybe in a time of crisis, others want you to speak up for them.

These are the matters that God sets before people every day. In the need, we hear the Voice. In the task, we are strengthened by the Hands we cannot see. That’s how the call of God can come.

And that’s how the work of God gets done.  

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Garret Keizer, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees: The Finding of a Ministry (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1991) 67-68.

No comments:

Post a Comment