Getting the Call
Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
Getting the Call
St. Alban’s, DC – 8/21/16 – The Rev. Emily Griffin
Jeremiah 1:4-10, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17
Is this really how it happens? Is the direction of our lives set before we’re even born – not to be created so much as discovered? Our first reading today implies as much. The LORD comes in a vision and tells a young Jeremiah that his path was chosen for him long before he had a say in the matter. So much for social mobility. He’s to be a prophet to the nations – to speak truth to power and be God’s messenger, come what may. He could try refusing, but he’d only be wasting time. After denying the boy’s protests of youth and inexperience, God does not promise him safety or even success. Simply this: “’Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you,’ says the LORD.” There will be a lot of plucking up and pulling down in his life, but he’ll get to build and plant some things too. How does that sound?
Is this really how God’s call works in our lives? Many biblical scholars think not. They point out the similarities between Jeremiah’s call and that of Moses or the prophet Isaiah – and claim that this story functions merely as a literary device. It’s the equivalent of “once upon a time,” an intro that sets expectations and nothing more. They downplay the person of Jeremiah and try to focus on the message instead of the messenger. Best not to take this one too personally, we’re told.
With that, many of us breathe a sigh of relief. Most of us have never received such direct instructions from God about what we’re to do with our lives. We’ve never experienced the Almighty as divine Guidance Counselor. We didn’t hear voices or see visions. Frankly, we stumbled around until we found something others were willing to pay us for. Some of us, by the grace of God, are paid to do what we love; I fall in that camp, and for that, I am deeply grateful.
But it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes our jobs are just that – jobs, not callings that resound to the deepest levels of our soul. Or maybe we thought our jobs defined us, until we retired or were downsized or were otherwise displaced. Our call from God may, in fact, have little to do with what we’re currently paid for. It may be more about family these days and who we love than what we do for a living. Or - our sense of call may shift so many times over the course of a lifetime that we can’t really call it one thing. We do what we can where we are until the currents of life take us somewhere else.
Besides, we don’t like the thought that God might have reached out to us with a singular vision, and we might have misheard the call. We’re not sure we like a God who doesn’t allow us to be the masters of our fates, the captains of our souls. We want to be the authors of our own stories, with God at best as a line in the acknowledgments. So yes, we say, let’s hold this story at arm’s length where it can’t challenge how we understand our own power or do too much harm.
That might work in certain circumstances, but it’s harder to pull off with this prophet. He has a way of making things personal. Since we’ll be hearing from Jeremiah a lot over the next few weeks, let’s try pulling him into sharper focus for a bit. Unlike most of our Old Testament prophets, Jeremiah lets slip all sorts of personal details. Three verses into the book, we’ve already learned that he’s the son of a priest. (Some of us feel for him already.) He comes from a long line of priests, in fact. His ancestor, the priest Abiathar, was banished by King Solomon for picking the losing side in a political battle. Ever since then, Jeremiah’s ancestors have sat on the sidelines in nearby Anathoth watching the shenanigans in Jerusalem, their nation’s capital. And now apparently, Jeremiah has been chosen by God to step out of those shadows and speak directly to power – whether he’s ready or not.
Over subsequent chapters, we see how personally he takes God’s message. He feels such sorrow for his people and their distance from God that we’re not sure when he’s feeling his own pain or when he’s carrying theirs. He’s such an emotional sponge that he seems to hold onto God’s pain too. He never marries or has kids. All of his eggs are in this basket. And what does he get for his efforts? Well, he’s arrested and imprisoned and, at one point, thrown into a cistern and left to die. It’s what the world does to prophets, I guess. Jeremiah is a firsthand witness as his city is destroyed. He’s then carted off to Egypt to spend the rest of his life in obscurity. No wonder we don’t want to take his story too personally. Is this what we get for picking up the phone when God calls? No wonder so many of us let the Almighty leave a message.
There’s another side to this, of course. Taken from another angle, it’s rather astonishing the intimate relationship Jeremiah enjoys with God – from childhood on, it remains the primary relationship of his life. He knows he’s never alone. When God speaks (however God speaks – be it in visions, words, nature or silence), even a young Jeremiah recognizes the voice and knows how to listen and respond. He even talks back. Those of us who have watched children closely shouldn’t be too surprised by this. Children often have a deep connection to the sacred, even if they lack the words to express it. And the words they use might not be words we as adults recognize as religious; our kids might not be able to match up the God we teach them about with the God they already know. But that doesn’t make their experiences any less authentic. Who’s in a position to say what God can or cannot communicate to young people – that they can’t somehow receive a call that shapes them for the rest of their lives?
That’s part of our struggle with this story, isn’t it? It’s not really that Jeremiah is too young to have a sense of God’s guidance and direction – some of us can buy that part. Rather, it’s our fear that this is how God works, and that we somehow showed up too late in the game. Whatever cards we hold in our hand now are the cards we’ve been dealt; all that’s left is for us to play them. Or so we think.
That’s where today’s Gospel story comes in. If it’s never too early for God to set the direction of our lives, then perhaps it’s never too late either. Consider the woman Jesus encounters in the synagogue. In some ways, she could not be more unlike Jeremiah. She has been severely crippled for 18 years and, in those days, she was blamed for it. It was assumed that an evil spirit possessed her. We’re not told why she comes to the synagogue, but my guess is that it’s not to be cured. You don’t live with something for 18 years without developing some sense of resignation – some way of coping with what you know you can’t change. She probably came to pray and find strength, like the rest of us do. We’re not told that she had any knowledge of Jesus prior to this moment. She doesn’t approach him. She’s in the right place at the right time. That’s it. The rest is grace. Jesus calls her over, lays his hands on her, and radically changes how she’ll live from that point on. We’re not told where she goes from here, only that she’s able to walk with her back straight and her head high. She’s finally free.
So what’s the point of these very different stories? On the surface, they have little to do with each other. For our purposes, though, they remind us that no two stories of God’s involvement in our lives are ever the same. There is no one right time or one right way for God to call us to serve. And when the calls do come, they are always personal and unique – and almost never on our schedule. Jeremiah knew early on what God wanted him to do, but even he still had to live out his calling in real time and be uprooted more than once. He had to make room for disappointment and failure, as well as for joy. As for the woman in the synagogue, she thought she knew what was in store for her; she thought she’d lived her life – until Jesus freed her to consider an entirely new future.
So how does God’s call work in our lives then? Do we create our lives or discover them? I think it’s a bit of both. Sometimes we recognize a call from God by who or what we love. We don’t find it so much as it finds us. Other times a calling shows up in crisis; we don’t know what is within us until it’s required – and our hands, our voices, our skills turn out to be exactly what’s needed to get the current flowing again. It is possible to refuse a call from God, as our passage from Hebrews so vividly reminds us. We can try saying no, but most often – what we’re really doing then is wasting time. Sometimes, as with Jeremiah, a call comes early in life and stays fairly consistent; other times, what we end up doing bears little resemblance to how we first imagined our lives. The truth is, we may find our calling in lots of roles rather than in just one – as a spouse or a parent, as an employee or a parishioner, as a friend. For most of us, it takes a lot of pieces coming together over many years and many journeys before the puzzle finally starts to take shape.
For clarity’s sake, sometimes I wish there were only one map, one journey, one metaphor – but it’s just not the case. Maybe the point isn’t to know it all in advance – so much as it is to listen and respond one step at a time. We’re not promised safety or even success. Simply this: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you,” says the LORD. I can work with that; how about you? Amen.