Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 16c – August 25, 2013
Let us pray: Guide my words and use them, O God, that they may be faithful to your word for us, your people. Amen,
Have you heard a “call story” before? I’m quite sure that all the ministers I know, and that’s quite a few people, have one. In fact, the journey to ministry usually involves telling the “call story” on many occasions. In some ways, it is a way of authenticating the vocation of ministry, and while there is not usually an itemized check-list of requirements in the “call story” it can often be an indicator to various discernment committees of whether this is truly the call of God that is being answered. I’ve heard quite a few “call stories”, having spent some time serving in various discernment processes in our denomination, and a few more just in the regular process of collegial connections – ministerial associations and other such gatherings.
One characteristic that often gets stated in “call stories” is the sense that the call cannot be denied. There is a sense of compulsion about the call to ministry, a feeling that this call by God cannot be avoided – postponed perhaps, sometimes for quite a long time, but the teller of the story will relate just how the call was persistent and ultimately unavoidable.
There is a hint of that in this morning’s reading from Jeremiah. Postponement is not the issue – after all Jeremiah protests that he is too young – but the sense that this cannot be avoided is clearly there.
That leads to another characteristic of most of the “call stories” I’ve heard – the sense that this vocation is beyond our capabilities. We don’t have enough experience, or ability, to do this work. So, along with the call to ministry or prophecy and really any vocation – for “call stories” are not limited to the vocation of ministry – some of the most compelling and interesting are stories of being called to other vocations – along with the call is a promise – a promise from God that we will be provided with what we need in order to do the work that God would have us do.
The story of the call of Jeremiah is a reminder to us that there is often a sense of the extraordinary, the surprising, the unexpected when it comes to doing the work of God. It is perhaps not surprising that alongside resistance to being called there should be the lifting up of people beyond their own sense of ability and suitability. God’s way is not our way – is part of the message of being called -and therefore God will call people outside of the expectation and common sense options. This is not limited to the story of Jeremiah – the Judeo-Christian heritage might rightly be stated as one of “unexpected call”. Time and again the story of scripture is that the person least expected to be chosen is the one who is chosen.
And I think that is an element which is continued in modern day call stories. We are rightfully wary if someone has a “call story” which says that they are especially blessed, and that they have all the tools and capabilities that are needed. There has to be an element of unpreparedness, not being ready, not be skilled enough to help authenticate the sense that God is behind all of this and that God will supply the missing elements to make this call a partnership, a relationship, that serves to lift up the presence, power and glory of God.
The work of ministry and prophecy is not always easy. Jeremiah had a tough role to play – his message to the people was not one that was easily heard.
That confirms the compelling aspect of being called. Would we willingly take on such a difficult responsibility if there was not an a sense that we could do no other? The very idea that this is something that might normally be resisted adds a sense of legitimacy that the call is from God – who sometimes asks us to do some difficult things but always with the promise that we will be given the tools, abilities and courage to do it – as needed, and often just in time.
I want to hold that sense that a “call” is unavoidable for a moment and focus on the other story we heard this morning, the story of the woman who was bent over – perhaps by physical condition or psychological condition. We all know that each of them – physical and psychological can weigh us down and bend us over with the pressures they put upon us.
The story of course is about freedom – the woman was set free from whatever it was that was weighing her down. The pressures – physical or psychological – were removed and she was free to live her life with gratitude and new found opportunity.
But the story of freedom does not end with the unbinding of the woman’s affliction. It is also about the freedom of Jesus to work this healing, to ease the dis-ease of the woman on the Sabbath, to the disapproval of the temple authority.
Thus, we have this interesting juxtaposition of a story about being free and a story about being called – which arguably might be understood as a story about the limiting of freedom.
The puzzled hearer of today’s word might ask: So which is it? Is the promise about freedom or is it about the irresistible impulse?
Couldn’t a case be made that one is the opposite of the other?
Jeremiah wasn’t exactly free to do whatever he wanted. He protested for that right, didn’t he? And was greeted with a “don’t worry” from God and a promise that he would get just what he needed when he needed it from God.
The answer is that it is both. God wants us to be free – free from all that would weigh us down – physically and psychologically. It is not always easy, or even possible, but it is God’s desire for us that we should be free.
But we are also called to follow God’s way – and that call is lived out in ways that can often lead to a limited number of choices. The argument might be that this limits our freedom, but we all know that too many choices can actually be a restriction on its own, and that selfish freedom can limit the freedom of others. Is it really freedom when we our freedom is gained by having others weighed down? Is freedom not a delicate balance between what is good for me and what is good for you? And God is involved in that equation as well – with the desire for the common good, common freedom, common goals.
I believe that’s the message of today’s readings – this important balance of freedom – as a promise from God – a freedom that finds its basis in justice – mutual good, commonly shared resources, having what we need and needing what we have – not too much, not too little, and call – which yes might be seen as limiting freedom, but which is really a way of directing our lives in ways that serve to live out that mutuality of freedom – that my freedom is not gained at the expense of yours, that freedom is shared by everyone.
Called and free – Jeremiah and a bent-over woman – a difficult journey for one – but one that would be lived in God’s promise of courage, support, and resources – and a joyous, glorious lifting of burden for the other – freed to praise God with thanksgiving. Amen.