January 31, 2016 / Annual Meeting
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
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. 8Do 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.’
It is hard to believe that we are here today for our eighth annual meeting together, you and I. Holy cow, have we come a long way! And Holy cow, do we have a long we to go! Because God’s work for us is never finished. That may be both the good news and the bad news. But if we are to live lives centered in the Gospel, then there will always be work to be done in God’s name. There will always be a call to ministry and mission, and to prophecy and prayer. We will be forever called to channel God’s abundant flow of love out into God’s world.
And today, this annual meeting Sunday, is the day we take stock of that calling. Our calling. And as luck or providence would have it, today’s lectionary readings seem perfectly suited to our task. Starting with the Hebrew Bible reading that gives us an intimate glimpse of God’s first calling to the prophet Jeremiah. We are entering year C in our lectionary cycle, and so for the next 10 months we will be reading quite a lot from the books of God’s prophets; from Amos and Hosea and Micah and Jeremiah and Isaiah and others, the ones called by God to do God’s most difficult work, the ones called to raise God’s voice and summon God’s hands to do the hard work of living into God’s image in this broken and battered world. And so this will be a stellar year to listen carefully and quietly for the places where God is calling us. Individually and together.
The call is one of the most fundamental marks of any prophetic narrative. It is the underlying credential of every prophet. It offers the authority by which the prophet is to be believed. It is the lineage of prophetic wisdom. That is, it verifies that the prophet’s wisdom comes from God. And, I think, it is the part of the prophetic tradition that each and every one of us can readily relate to. For we have each been called by God to do God’s work, and in a unique and particular way; we have each be earmarked for a prophetic call that only we can answer. I cannot answer your call, and you cannot answer mine. But we are each called, nonetheless. And called to the same end….we are called to spread God’s love for God’s creation like an unchecked virus. If you have not yet heard your call, be patient, you will. This morning’s reading from Jeremiah gives us an ideas of how it may well sound.
Jeremiah’s call is both classic and unique. It is unique in the way that every calling is unique; the timing belongs to God. In Jeremiah, that timing is at the very beginning of the Book. But no two prophets are called on the same schedule. So not to worry if you are well into your own story and you are still waiting for the punchline. But Jeremiah heard his call from the start.
Jeremiah’s call is classic because it follows every step of the formula. And there is a definite formula for prophetic calls in our faith tradition. If this formula does not sound familiar, be patient, it will. Jeremiah’s call begins: 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…’ There is no question, God is calling Jeremiah. I knew you. I consecrated you. I appointed you, says the Lord. And the authority of that call is grounded in Jeremiah’s birthright. It is not an afterthought. God did not get a job order and look around for someone to fill it. God created Jeremiah for this purpose, to do this job. God knows that Jeremiah can do the job, because God has created him for this very thing. I knew you. I consecrated you. I appointed you. This is God, your Creator, calling.
And, as the formula goes, once a prophet has been called by God, there is also a fairly standard prophetic response: Are you talkin’ to me, God? No,no no. You can’t be talkin’ to me. I’m not worthy. I am sooo not prophet material. And that denial is usually followed by a lengthy listing of some of the so-called-prophet’s most glaring self-defined shortcomings. And Jeremiah is no exception – he is shocked: Ah look Lord, I, I, I don’t know what to say, I’m so not good at public speaking, I’m young, inexperienced, I wouldn’t know where to begin. But God responds, as is the usual course, by telling Jeremiah that he need not worry, because……well, just because. Because he has been created by God, consecrated by God, chosen by God, and he speaks with God’s voice, and God will be with him, and God will protect him….whatever that means. But it is clear that Jeremiah does not feel suited to the task and God is not deterred by Jeremiah’s discomfort.
And that is both the good news and the bad news about a true prophetic calling. A true calling is a divine commission. That is to say, it is not necessarily of our own choosing. Jeremiah was not unhappy in his former job. He was not looking for a new horizon. He had no particular desire to enter the exciting field of prophetic ministry, as it were. He was, in fact, minding his own day to day business, living his own ordinary life, just like Moses, and Amos, and Hosea, and Isaiah, when God reached out and tapped them on their shoulders….actually, in Jeremiah’s case, God touched him on the mouth, and said: Now, I have put my words in your mouth. Today I appoint you to be my prophet.
And now the ball is in Jeremiah’s court. Now, Jeremiah has a choice. I want to make a clear distinction here. What we ultimately do is of our own choosing, but what we are called to do is not. That is what distinguishes a call from God from our own wishful thinking.
In his classic book, The Prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that God’s prophets – Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel – address the human “failure of freedom.” Their central prophetic message to us, says Heschel, is an, “insistence that the human situation can be understood only in conjunction with the divine situation…” That is, human beings have agency, but not control. We have, as Heschel says, “choice, but not sovereignty.”  We can choose among options, but we are not in control of the options from which we can choose.
And we know the options from which we can choose by the gifts we have been given. Our gifts have been carefully designed and appointed and endowed to serve our particular calling. So if our gifts do not match what we think we are being called to do…..the calling is not from God. I wanted to be a folk singer. I put myself through college with my guitar. I thought God was calling me to change the world as a singer/songwriter. I was so sure of it, that I did not apply for a single job my senior year in college. I graduated with nothing more than a diploma and a set list.
But as I quickly surmised, only one thing was stopping me from answering what I thought was my call. I didn’t have the gifts. I loved music. I learned all of the chords, I knew all of the lyrics. But singer/songwriter was not my gift. I was just not good enough to prevail in that realm. God had not endowed me to sing for my living.
But, I had no clue what God had endowed me to do. If not singer-songwriter, then what? And not for nothing, but when I was in my 20’s, I would have expected to be called to be a mall Santa before I would have expected to be called to be an Episcopal priest. Sometimes, we cannot even imagine, let alone hear what God is calling us to do. But called to this vocation I seemed to be. And like Jeremiah, when I finally heard the call, then I had a choice. The choice was not priest or folksinger. The choice was rather, I think, now or never.
Whether or not we follow God’s call is up to us. But we do not have the sovereignty to change the call. We pick up or hang up, but we cannot dial another number. God calls us to God’s purposes, not our own. That’s the first thing we need to know about a true prophetic calling. It comes from God, who knew us in the womb and created us with our own very particular gifts especially designed for a very particular purpose…..a purpose that only God fully understands.
The second thing about a true calling, it comes when we are ready, not when we are looking. Not when we are wanting to be called, but when we are ready to be called. Not necessarily when we are twenty five and realizing that folk singing is not going to pan out. And so unfortunately, sometimes, willing and able are in two different time zones. Jeremiah tells God that he cannot be a prophet because he is “just a boy.” And God snaps back: Do not say that you are just a boy, for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Sort of the divine version of, “because I said so.” In other words, we do not have to know all of the specifics. We do not get to determine when we are ready. The timing is entirely up to God. Our job is to trust God’s timing.
There is an old Hindu story about the divine couple, Siva and Shakti. They are hanging out in their heavenly penthouse watching the humming of the human world. And they are saddened and dismayed by the suffering of the human condition. The hardship, the struggle, the misery of human life weighs heavily on their hearts. And as Shakti watches a poor old man shuffling down the road in rags, his sandals worn through to the toe, her heart breaks. She is touched by his innocence and his indigence. And she asks her husband Savi to send down a bag of gold for this poor wretch. And after watching the man for awhile, Savi says “no, I can’t do that.” And Shakti says, “what do you mean you can’t do that? You are the Lord of the Universe. You can do anything you want to do!” Savi says, “you are right, my sweet, but he is not ready to receive it.” Shakti is angered by her husband’s callous arrogance. “Oh please,” she says, “can’t you just drop a bag of gold in his path? Come on.” And so Savi, wanting to appease his wife, acquiesces and drops a large bag filled with gold nuggets in the path just ahead of the pauper.
Meanwhile, the unfortunate man walks slowly and deliberately along the path, wishing that he had a few coins to get a bite of food. Worrying about how he might find someplace to lay his head that night, and dreaming of the riches that would provide him with a sweet feather bed in a warm dry palace like the ones just outside of his village. And all of a sudden he spies a large object in the middle of his path. “Aha,” he shouts, “look there, a large rock right in the middle of the road.” And as he makes a wide detour around the big bag of gold he says to himself, “What a lucky thing that I have seen that big ragged rock, or I might have torn my sandals even further.”
Gifts and callings come when we are ready, not when we are dreaming. And so it is our job to keep our eyes and ears open at all times, for even the most unlikely looking invitations. If you have not encountered your own bag of prophetic gold, be patient, you will.
And the third thing about prophetic calls, is that God never, or at least rarely, calls anyone into their comfort zone. Every prophet, every agent of God’s deepest will, has, at one time or another, been frightened to her/his core. That is not to say that we should not follow our bliss, as it were, but that if that bliss is authentic, some portion of the road ahead will be fraught with pain and pitfalls. God never calls us into our comfort zone. If the call is into your comfort zone, it is more likely a call from Bernie and Phyl. Noah, Moses, Abraham, Sarah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Paul……they were all summarily sucked out of their comfort zones. So, my fellow godly prophets, fasten your seat belts. If you have not yet left your comfort zone for your call, you will.
And lastly, in the final analysis, I am certain that God is calling us to wholeness above all else. God never calls just a piece of us. God calls us just as we are, all of us; just as we were created to be called, the whole of who we are. God calls us to be reconciled with all that we are, the good the bad the ugly and the magnificent. Any calling that denies our whole selves is not God’s calling. Any calling that seeks for us to be good rather than whole is a trap. This is what the wise writer Parker Palmer means when he says that dwelling with God is being faithful to the whole of one’s nature….warts and love handles and addictions and infractions and fears and jealousies and ungraciousness and all. Not one of us here, or anywhere, are partially unworthy of answering God’s call. Not one of us has any part of us that is so broken, so distasteful, so disreputable, so repugnant, so shameful that God asks us to fracture ourselves, to divide ourselves, to embrace the good and deny the bad parts of ourselves, and certainly not in God’s name. Any calling that seeks for us to be good rather than whole is not God calling.
God never calls us into self-denial, God calls us rather into self-discovery, to discover what we were created to be, not what we are needing to change or deny. I hope we remember this as we enter the holy season of Lent. William Sloan Coffin once said that the devil is always suggesting that we compromise our high calling by substituting the good in place of the best….because the best is always the whole. Any calling that seeks for us to be good rather than whole is not God calling.
Answering God’s prophetic call is the work of this beloved community. Our work together is the work of discernment; discerning God’s call to us, each and together. Our work is about taking stock of our gifts, and listening together to the ways in which God is calling us to cultivate and use those gifts. And then helping each other to answer. Even though our callings are particular to us, individually and together. I think we are fairly safe in saying that there is no place like St. Paul’s. We are a unique constellation of gifts and energies that God has gathered to do some very specific work in God’s world. Just as God created Jeremiah to do what Jeremiah was called to do, so too it is with this beloved community, and each of it beloved members. God has ordained us, specifically, to do the work that we are doing.
Today we celebrate our collective callings! So let us listen together. Here in the one place in our wider community where we can put God and God’s purposes front and center. Church is the one place where we can actively and blatantly collaborate in God’s name for God’s purposes to answer God’s call. We come to church to come to God. We come together to come to God. And so simply by being here together, as Jesus said in this morning’s Gospel, today the scripture has been fulfilled in its hearing.
And the people said: Amen!
© January 2016, The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
 Heschel, The Prophets, 190.