Sunday, January 28, 2007
Young and Called: A Sermon
“Young and Called”
January 28, 2007, Ordinary 4C
Almost five years ago I was sitting outside a local high school in my car, waiting for my children to emerge from a play rehearsal. I turned on the radio, and heard a song about young prophets being called to service. It was called “Ordinary Town,” and here is the first verse.
Common cool, he was a proud young fool in a [kickin’] Walmart tie
Ripping down the main drag, tripping on the headlights rolling by
In the early dawn when the cars were gone, did he hear the master's call?
In the five-and-dime did he wake and find he was only dreaming after all, 'cause
This is an ordinary town and the prophet stands apart
This is an ordinary town and we brook no wayward heart
And every highway leads you prodigal back home
To the ordinary sidewalks you were born to roam
Today the lectionary gives us four readings, all of which are speaking to us in some guise about young people receiving the call of God. In Psalm 71 we hear the psalmist acknowledge that God has always been with him, even from birth:
For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth.
Upon you I have leaned from my birth;
it was you who took me from my mother’s womb… ~ Psalm 71:5-6a
And in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians we hear of the transformation of the child as he or she comes into maturity, coupled with that same awareness of God’s presence from the very beginning:
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. ~ 1 Corinthians 13:11-12
And from the gospel of Luke, we hear of Jesus, a man from an ordinary town, whose neighbors no longer know what to make of him:
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” ~ Luke 4:22
Being a prophet is a hard calling. Scripture doesn’t pull any punches on this point. In story after story of God calling ordinary people from ordinary towns to do extraordinary things, we see the same pattern. God calls, and the person answers something along the lines of, “Who, me? Are you kidding?” (Jesus, of course, is the exception to this rule.) And God says, “Don’t worry. I’ll be with you. Just as I always have been.”
Jeremiah tells us the story of his call.
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.” ~ Jeremiah 1:4-6
Jeremiah is in an unenviable position. With these words he is being sent to the religious and political leaders of Judah to warn them of impending doom. Yes, Jeremiah could be called a classic prophet of doom. He preaches the same message preached by so many prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures: the people have fallen away. They are no longer faithful to God, and God is heartbroken. And angry. But mostly, heartbroken. If you look at art depicting Jeremiah, and I’m sending around images by Rembrandt and Michelangelo, you see that the prophet looks heartbroken too, bowing his head under the weight of his commission. This is probably because his prophecies, despite being likened by some scholars to performance art because of his creative use of props, fell upon deaf ears. Jeremiah was in Jerusalem when the city was overrun by the Babylonian army in 587 BCE. He had pretty much called it.
The song testifies to the problems prophets have in being taken seriously.
Rock of ages, love contagious, shine the serpent fire
So sang the sage of sixteen summers in the upstairs choir
So sang the old dog down the street beside his wailing wall
"Go home, go home," the mayor cried when Jesus came to city hall, 'cause
This is an ordinary town, and the prophet stands alone
This is an ordinary town and we crucify our own
And every highway leads you prodigal again
To the ordinary houses you were brought up in.
Like the frightened mayor in this verse, there is often a desire to de-legitimize the voices of the prophets, or at the very least, send them away. In Jesus’ case, in our reading today, we hear the quizzical voices, “Isn’t this Joseph’s kid?” just moments before we hear that there has been a quick attempt to throw him off a cliff. In the case of Jeremiah, the reader will see him in prison before the 52 chapters of his book have run their course. That’s where he is when the Babylonians arrive, confirming what he has been saying all along.
But if we read Jeremiah’s plaintive protest—“Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy”—it becomes clear, I think, that the prophet’s greatest obstacle may not be external forces, what the psalm calls “the hand of the wicked, unjust and cruel.” The prophet’s greatest obstacle may just be the voices in her own head, telling her, she is just not up to the task. This is an ordinary town, I’m an ordinary girl. No prophets here. And I think that could be a good description of any one of us pondering the call of God in our lives.
We can open up the New York Times or USA Today and, most weeks, read a story about someone whom some group has anointed as their prophet of the moment. Some of these folks are religious leaders. Some of them are political leaders. Some of them are spearheading movements for social justice, or environmental action, or exposing abuses perpetrated by the powerful upon the powerless. And any one of these might be described as biblical prophets—speaking the truth in love, often to power, often at great personal risk. Some people are called by God to this kind of action, this kind of witness, in the manner of a Jeremiah or a Martin Luther or a Martin Luther King. Maybe some are here in this room.
But what about the rest of us? What about our call? What is it and how do we discern it? The truth is, every one of us, prophet or no, has the exact same call. We are called to exactly the same thing that nearly got Jesus thrown off that cliff: the ministry of loving God and loving our neighbor, not merely in word or pledge or membership, but in action. This is both the simplest and, in some ways, the most devilishly difficult kind of calling.
In his book, Diary of a County Priest, George Bernanos records the struggle of a young man to live out his call in the most ordinary of circumstances.
He describes his rural parish as bored and boring, at times petty, and often indifferent. He loves his people deeply, prays for them, and visits [them]… But [he feels a] deep disillusionment. He knows that he is physically clumsy and socially awkward. He ponders the absurdity of prayer. He agonizes over his loneliness and sense of isolation. When he shares the gospel he sometimes feels like he is merely play-acting and parroting clichés. He [feels like] "a hornet in a bottle." …He struggles with a deep sense of total failure, that "[his] best is nothing." …And so he frets about his call: "Am I where our Lord would have me? Twenty times a day I ask this question."
If we could see a picture of this priest, I suspect he would look much like discouraged, heartbroken Jeremiah. The ordinary boy from the ordinary town who no longer feels that he is up to his call. Interestingly, the young priest receives counsel from one of his elders. Does he tell him that he is wrong, to snap out of it, that he should be ashamed for all his self-flagellation and self-pity? Not at all. The elder gives him the following advice:
"Keep saying your lessons. Go on with your work. Keep at the little daily things that need doing, ‘til the rest comes. Concentrate. Think of a lad at his homework, trying so hard and his tongue sticking out. That's how our Lord would have us be when he gives us up to our own strength. Little things—they don't look like much, yet they bring peace. Like wild flowers which seem to have no scent, till you get a field full of ‘em."
Keep at it, like a schoolgirl hunched over her books, tongue sticking out. That’s our prescription when the call of God on our ordinary lives feels like too much for us. And the call of God upon our lives can feel like too much—the call to love. We say that so casually, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. But it’s not. What is natural is aggression and territoriality and defensiveness. But we are called to do the kind of thing described, for example, in Paul’s letter to the Colossians:
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. ~ Colossians 3:12-13
That sounds so lovely. And it is so hard. And those of us who challenge ourselves—or, rather, who have accepted God’s challenge—to live in that way have quite a task. Clothe yourself with compassion—even when you yourself are hurting. Clothe yourself with kindness—even as you experience the harsh treatment that is par for the course in your chosen field of study. Clothe yourself with humility—even when survival seems to hinge upon demonstrations of ego. Like Jeremiah we can hear ourselves calling out, “Ah, Lord God, it’s just me here.”
But you know, don’t you, what God’s response is. God’s response to each of us struggling with this peculiar calling to be Christians is the same as God’s response to Jeremiah, to the psalmist, to Paul: Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Ordinary Christian, young, middle-aged or old prophet, I have been with you from your birth. I am with you while you are hunched over your books, and I am with you at the board meeting. I am with you as you struggle to budget your time and I am with you as you strive to live out my call to love in the tangled web of all your human relationships. “Every highway leads you prodigal and true/ to the ordinary angels watching over you.”
We are called to God’s work, the work of loving. When that’s too hard, we are called to place one foot oh so carefully in front of the other, as we are able. And in all of it—our most glorious moments of spiritual accomplishment and our most humble moments of stumbling—we are called to know that God is with us. Always has been, always will be. God is with us. Amen.
1. Song: Ordinary Town by Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, from Drum Hat Buddha
2. Quotes from "Country of a Diary Priest" from Dan Clendenin, “The Call of Jeremiah: Human Struggle with the Divine Summons,” in Journey With Jesus: Notes to Myself, http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20070122JJ.shtml, 2007.