Rev. Kyle Childress tells this story of a young teenager in his congregation, the Austin Heights Baptist Church in Nacogdoches, Texas. She was a tall, gangly, self-conscious seventh-grade girl, a member of the track team at the local junior high school. A Saturday track meet was postponed to the next Saturday— the same day that the church had scheduled a mini-mission trip for which the girl had signed up.
She went to her track coach and told him about the conflict. The coach was adamant: “Your teammates are counting on you and you can’t let them down. I expect you here for the meet.” She went home in tears. The next day she talked to him again; again he responded, “You are either here for the meet or you turn in your uniform.” More tears that night.
A third time she walked into the coach’s office, handed him her uniform and walked away.
The standard Texas response, Childress says, would have been to want to take over the school board and outlaw any school functions that conflict with church events. What actually happened was that many of the parents in his church were upset but willing to go along with the coach. So they were more than a little surprised when the girl explained to them, “This is about God.” A child of their own church family, one they had watched over from nursery to youth group, was choosing God and church over her track team. They were stunned by her display of faith. Apparently she took what they had to teach her seriously!
The junior high girl from Nacogdoches, Texas, was not Martin Luther King, Jr. or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or an Old Testament prophet or Jesus. She wasn’t standing up for equality in the face of racial prejudice or freedom against a tyrannical government. She didn’t end up on a cross. But prophets all start somewhere.
The prophet Jeremiah apparently started young. The Book of Jeremiah begins with the story of his call which, he says, came when he was “a boy.” We don’t know exactly when that was, but we do know what it was. God knew Jeremiah in and out, and had always known him, even from before there was a Jeremiah. And God called Jeremiah to a specific task. "I appointed you a prophet to the nations."
Jeremiah is not pleased with this calling. “I’m too young.” “I’m not ready.” “I don’t know how to do this.” “I’m not who you think I am, Lord.” But God has to start somewhere. So the Lord promises Jeremiah whatever he needs to live into his calling. "Do not be afraid of them," God says, "for I am with you to deliver you." Then God touches Jeremiah and puts God's words into Jeremiah's mouth.
Jeremiah had good reason to evade God’s call. In the early part of the 6th C BC, the people of Judah, the remaining southern part of what was once the United Kingdom of Israel, was under threat from the Babylonians – the enemy to the north referred to in the Scripture reading.
But Jeremiah’s job was not to rally the troops or inspire the resistance movement. It was to speak the truth about what was happening: the people of God had neglected their worship, they had turned to idolatries and diversions, they had weakened the core of their culture and now they would fall to the enemy. The land they had fought for, the Temple built under King Solomon as the center of their corporate life and the focus of their worship, the status of their nation as an independent kingdom devoted to Yahweh – all of this was going to be destroyed. And Jeremiah’s call was to be the one to spread the bad news.
Usually we think of a “call from God” as a call to some sort of professional ministry. The men and women who respond to this kind of call go through a long period of discernment, a period of subjecting themselves to the judgment of others -- religious superiors, seminary professors, committees and more committees – in order to determine if the call they hear is truly to professional ministry and what form this ministry might take.
These days, describing oneself as being called by God invites all sorts of speculation: how do you know it’s God calling? Maybe it’s hormones. Or an overly active imagination. Possibly even some form of psychosis.
And there’s probably good reason for suspicion. Discerning the difference between God’s call and something else – a convenient escape from responsibility, for example – isn’t easy. Writer Kathleen Norris says “If a call merely confirms a comfortable self-regard, if God seems to be cleverly assessing our gifts and talents just as we would, I would suggest that it is highly suspect. I once met a young woman at a Methodist seminary who told me confidently that God has called her to be a minister so that she could preach sustainable agriculture. I said that I wondered if this would be a sustainable ministry. She seemed to have forgotten that, as St. Bonaventure once wrote, “the world makes its choices in one way, Christ in another,” choosing to employ our weaknesses rather than our strengths, and our failures far more than our successes.”
One sign of a genuine call from God – vs. a call from your own subconscious – is that your reaction is to doubt that you’re qualified...because God really does know you better than you know yourself. God has more confidence in your abilities than you do. God knows what you are capable of, whether or not you agree. And therefore, God expects you to share what you have and who you are with the world that needs both.
This kind of call is not just for professional church workers. All Christians have a call to what is commonly termed ‘the priesthood of all believers.’ All of us are expected to use our lives so as to reveal the grace of the Holy Spirit working through us. It’s a tall order, to literally be a sacrament – a visible sign of God’s invisible grace. It helps to remember Jesus’ statement in the 15th chapter of John’s Gospel: ‘You did not choose me; I chose you.’
Kathleen Norris joined a church, for the first time, as an adult. “It was January, bitterly cold and windy, on the day I joined,” she writes. “I found that the sub- zero chill perfectly matched my mood. As I walked to church into the face of that wind, I was thoroughly depressed. I didn’t feel much like a Christian and wondered if I was making a serious mistake. I longed to take refuge in the position of the 20th C mystic Simone Weil: that her true religious calling was to remain outside the church. But that was not my way. I still felt like an outsider in the church, yet I knew that somehow, making this commitment was something I needed to do.
Before the service, the new members gathered with some of the elders. One was a man I’d never liked much. Ed always seemed ill-tempered to me, and also a terrible gossip, epitomizing the small mindedness that can make church life such a trial. The minister had asked him to formally greet the new members. Standing awkwardly before our small group, Ed cleared his throat and mumbled, ‘I’d like to welcome you to the body of Christ.’
The minister’s mouth dropped open, as did mine – neither of us had ever heard words remotely like this come from Ed’s mouth. Like distant thunder, the words made me more alert, attuned to further disruptions in the atmosphere. What had I gotten myself into? I was astonished to realize, as that service began, that while I may never like Ed very much, I had just been commanded to love him. My own small mind had just been jolted, and the world seemed larger, opened in a new way.”
It is easy to think of belonging to a church or coming to worship as something we do for ourselves – a fueling up for the rest of the week. And I do hope that that is some of what happens here – a time and place for comfort and support and receiving what is needed to get through the days ahead.
But being called to be a Christian involves more than a refueling visit to the sanctuary. It involves acknowledging that all you have and all you are is due to God in the first place, and that God’s claim on your life is a claim on all of your life – not just the part that’s easiest to do...or to give...or to be. To respond to God’s call to be part of the body of Christ is to make yourself available to God, offering back that which God has given you...that someone else now needs.
Rev. Lawrence Wood says that it isn’t true that God needs nothing. “Actually God comes to us every day with material needs. Even the most fortunate of us are never more than a few miles away from the destitute, from battered women, schoolchildren, and the housebound elderly. We can support churches, food pantries, free clinics, hospice care. Beyond our hometowns, there are disaster relief agencies, medical research, medical missions, overseas and domestic charities.”
We have three choices. We can give nothing – neither our time nor our money nor our talents. We can rummage in the sock drawer for what is most easily parted with – a low-level commitment, something to put in the plate when it comes by. Or we can decide that God deserves first pick - the best of our time, the top of the priority list, the first part of our income, whether it’s 2% or 5% or 10%.
Recognizing God’s claim on your life means recognizing that all that we are – our love, our time, our talents, our heart, mind and soul – all of them belong to God. You can get away with ignoring that claim. It is possible to spend a lifetime refusing to hear God’s call. You can explain that you don’t have the time, you aren’t really very gifted, you have too many debts. God’s not going to chase you down and prosecute you. God’s been turning a blind eye for generations, or so it would seem.
Because at some point -- in the middle of a sleepless night; on a long, solo car ride; at the end of a marathon of living up to others’ expectations; in a moment of honest self-recognition -- you may find yourself arguing with God:
“AhLordGod,trulyIdonotknowhowtodothis. Iamonlyaboy,agirl,aman, a woman. I don’t have a degree; I am afraid of public speaking; I don’t have enough energy; I don’t have enough time; I don’t have enough money. I am only me. I don’t know where to start.”
But the Lord will respond, “Do not say, “I am only a boy, a girl, a man, a woman. I know every part of you, every cell, every wish, every fear. I created you to be who you are and I have called you to go where I send you, to share what I have given you, to bless as I have blessed you. Do not be afraid, for I am with you to deliver you. You just have to start somewhere. Because you did not choose me; I chose you.”
Loving God, Creator of our lives, make us aware of the lives to which you are calling us and give us the courage to live them. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan, “What's My Life?” Day One Radio Program. Posted February 01, 2004. http://day1.org/478-whats_my_life
Kyle Childress, “Expect a call.” The Christian Century. Jan 09, 2007 http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2007-01/expect-call
Lawrence Wood, News To Me: Gospel Stories for the Real World. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.
Kathleen Norris. Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. Riverhead Books, 1998.