Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sermon: Fear, Deep Gladness, and God's Call

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Fear, Deep Gladness, and God’s Call
James Sledge                                                                                     August 21, 2016

There’s a famous quote from writer and Presbyterian pastor, Frederick Buechner about calling, one I’ve used myself on a number of occasions. “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.” I love this idea, the notion that discovering your true purpose in life both deepens your own joy while making the world a better place. Still, the quote has always left me a little uneasy.
No doubt there is truth to it. Many people have found vocations or callings that bring them much happiness while doing good, helping others, benefitting society. But the quote still makes me uneasy for a couple of reasons. First, in our individualistic culture, the focus on my deep gladness tends to overshadow the world’s deep hunger. And second, the quote isn’t always true.
I first encountered Buechner as I explored my call to become a pastor. The quote is often trotted out at discernment weekends held by seminaries and by pastors and others advising would be pastors. However, there is another pearl of wisdom often shared by the same people. This one comes from Charles Spurgeon, a famous preacher from the 19th century, who said of becoming a pastor, “If you can do anything else do it. If you can stay out of the ministry, stay out of the ministry.”
I don’t know about you, but I detect a certain tension between the Buechner and Spurgeon quotes. The latter sounds like a warning. It suggests, to my ear at least, that being a pastor may be more difficult, less rewarding than one might imagine. Be really sure about this calling, it says. It may not be non-stop, deep gladness.
Now like any calling, being a pastor features good and bad. It can be very rewarding, although those rewards may not mirror our society’s idea of reward. But it should not surprise anyone if a calling from God isn’t loaded with non-stop joy and gladness. After all, at the very core of Jesus’ calling is the cross, a cross he prays that he might not have to endure, a cross he does not want.

This is actually typical of calls in the Bible. Rarely are they sought out. They almost always seem like a terrible idea to the one who is called. Moses didn’t want to be the one who led Israel out of slavery in Egypt. There was nothing that looked like deep gladness to him in that task, and if you read the biblical stories of the Exodus and the Israel’s forty year wandering in the wilderness, it’s hard to imagine that gladness would ever have been high on the list of words Moses used to speak of his work.
Surely that is the case for the prophet Jeremiah as well. His calling, which involves condemning the leadership of Israel, telling of impending defeat and exile, and arguing against resisting the Babylonian invaders will have him labeled a traitor and thrown into prison. Not a lot of gladness there.
Hints at the difficulty of his calling are there in our reading this morning, where the prophet remembers his entry into God’s service. The language is typical of call stories in the Bible. God calls, and the one called objects. Jeremiah’s objects that he is “only a boy,” which does not necessarily mean he was just a child. It may well mean, “I’m young and inexperienced, and there are lots of people who are better equipped and trained to speak on your behalf.” But such objections, true or not, do not impress God.
God will give Jeremiah the words he needs, yet God knows that Jeremiah is right to be wary of this calling and adds, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” Jeremiah’s call will put him in danger. It is not something that he could have discovered by brainstorming a list of things that made him glad.
At some point, Jeremiah likely discovered a deep gladness in his calling, though clearly not gladness as the world understands such things. But he did not discover his calling by looking for gladness. That is because the shape of his call, of most biblical calls, does not  begin with gladness or happiness. You can see it in the words of commission he receives. “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."
The hope side, the glad side of Jeremiah’s work, building and planting, is not where his ministry begins. It begins with plucking up, pulling down, and overthrowing. That is because God’s newness does not arrive in the manner our consumer culture teaches. It does not come by addition but by subtraction. The old must be pulled down for the new to be born.
And this isn’t just with Jeremiah. It’s a consistent biblical theme, one that Jesus echoes when he says that to follow him means to deny self, to take up the cross, to lose one’s life, and be reborn by the Spirit. Or as the Apostle Paul puts it, I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.
But such a message can be difficult to hear. Letting go of one’s old self to discover a new and truer self is hard, even for those longing for newness. That’s one reason racial division remains a pervasive problem in America. Even among those who would celebrate an end to racism, there is often an unwillingness to acknowledge and let go of old patterns of privilege, to dismantle, pluck up, and pull down ingrained ways of thinking and acting that prevent something genuinely new from being born and growing.
That is why Jeremiah’s call and others like it are not easily embraced. Repent is never a popular message. The call to pluck up and pull down, to embrace the cross and death so that newness can be born of the Spirit, is a frightening message to receive or to give, which is why God reassures Jeremiah, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.”
Right now in the life of FCPC, there is talk of newness. With the Congregational Assessment Tool (CAT) as a starting point, we’ve begun to explore where Christ may be calling us, how we are sent to be his body in the world. The Session (our governing council) has begun some “holy imagining” as we listen for renewed vision, for God’s hopes and dreams for our congregation. But if God’s newness always arrives cruciform, with self-denial and letting go, will we embrace it?
You may have noticed the cartoon I reprinted a in the bulletin. I chuckled when I first saw it on Facebook, but as I worked on this sermon, I realized that it depicted resistance to God’s call, not unlike that of Jeremiah or Moses. The cartoon characters are a bit more forthright and blunt in their objections compared to Jeremiah’s “I don’t speak well because I’m so young.” But fundamentally, both Jeremiah and the cartoon characters are simply scared. They’re frightened about what such a call may cost them. If Jeremiah says yes or the cartoon church members open the door, it may cost more than they’re willing to give up.
Jeremiah was afraid. And he probably did truly feel unqualified, ill-equipped, and unprepared to do what God asked. But God reassures him. God will equip him. Much more, God will be with him. It is the very same assurance Jesus gives to the first disciples, and to those who follow in their footsteps, when he commissions them, and commissions us, to continue his ministry in the world. “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

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