Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
I know, I know. There’s no one that pastoral types like me distrust more than someone who declares they are called by God to do this or that. Self-proclaimed prophets and preachers in church are a dime a dozen. Believe me, I am one! In an election year we have to make do with narcissists who tell us they are God’s answers to the nation’s pressing issues. Yet if you pressed me on the matter, I would be forced to admit that I too have been called by God.
My real introduction to this passage came long ago when I lived in the bush of Africa. Our family was part of a church-planting team among a tribal people. We were the only foreigners for miles around, and even though the tribal people were good to us, it was isolating, difficult, slow work. Most missionaries I know have a strong sense of calling, and I was no exception. But years of language learning, living in the cross-cultural pressure cooker, parenting a growing family in a very remote location, and the challenges of first-generation church work wore the shine off that once-clear call.
Somewhere along the line I came across Eugene Peterson’s book on Jeremiah, Run With the Horses. The book, the author, the subject landed like a thunderbolt. I didn’t know who this Peterson guy was at the time, but he brought the old prophet to life before my eyes, and Jeremiah has been a mentor and patron saint ever since. These days I spend a lot of time helping shape college and seminary students for ministry, and I have opportunities to care for cross-cultural missionaries too. I have been known at simply hand Peterson’s little book on the life of Jeremiah to struggling servants of Christ, tell them to read it, take two aspirin, and call me in the morning.
Today’s Old Testament lection from the first chapter of Jeremiah is a “call” story, plain and simple. Note that Jeremiah was not being summoned to high office, to a bigger church with a more acceptable salary, or even to “successful” ministry. Jeremiah was called to be faithful in a ministry in which he would never see much “fruit.” Jeremiah would never see much appreciable change in the people to whom he was sent.
Instead, Jeremiah would be ridiculed, thrown into a pit, targeted for assassination. He seemed prone to mood swings and cried a lot. Annihilation hung over the heads of the people, and Jeremiah’s desperate efforts to bring God’s people to repentance seemed doomed to failure. The people refused to listen and Jeremiah stood by helplessly as Judah was cut to pieces and carried off into exile. Jeremiah’s ending was not a happy one either. He was shipped off into Egyptian exile. And that’s the last we know of Jeremiah’s story, except for this—he was faithful to God’s call, from start to finish.
“Being called” doesn’t guarantee that we will have any idea what success or failure actually looks like. Tonight I think of you, Ekklesia friends, as you plug away in your congregation, institution, or job. I think of you as you doctor the sick, as you start another year of school, as you pray for people, as you push back the darkness, as you raise your families, as you give yourself to your community. Some of you feel reasonably sure you are doing what you have been called to do. Others of you perhaps struggle mightily to know if you are in the right place. Some of you wonder if you are the right person for the tasks at hand. Some of you wonder why life seems so hard. Here’s the news from Jeremiah:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…” God knows you. Peterson says that way before we started wondering what God was up to, God was already thinking about what we would be up to. “Long before we (started) asking questions about God, God has been questioning us. Long before we became interested in the subject of God, God subjected us to the most intensive and searching knowledge–-We are known before we know…My identity does not begin when I begin to understand myself. There is something previous to what I think about myself, and it is what God thinks of me. That means that everything I think and feel is by nature a response, and the one to whom I respond is God. I never speak the first word. I never make the first move.”
“Before you were born I set you apart, I consecrated you.” God told Jeremiah, (and tells us) that we have been chosen. We are a consecrated people. You have long been on God’s mind and how you live our life is known and valued by God. In mysterious and sometimes hidden ways God has led you to the place you find yourself. You belong to God, and God’s hand is upon you.
“I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” God still sends people like Jeremiah—like you and me, to be lights in our corner of creation. God sends people–mothers and fathers, kids and grandparents, singles and couples, teachers and builders, peace makers, farmers, healers, musicians, willing servants– out into the world to incarnate the amazing message that God loves the world and longs to see all that is broken put back together.
Ekklesia Friends: You are known. You have been consecrated. You have been appointed to go, to speak, to love, to serve. Go forth and do good work in the world today.