Jeremiah 1:4-10, Mark 2:13-17 May 24, 2015
Today’s sermon title is not a typo. I mean “vocation.” When this topic appeared on the Confirmation class syllabus, one of the students was sure that I mean “vacation.” But no, we did not get a day off when we discussed vocation in Confirmation. “Vocation” is based on the idea of being called to a particular task. What does it mean to be called to something? And how can one ever know if he or she has found their true calling?
In seminary we learned to tell our call stories. Churches want to know about their future pastors’ senses of call. And to be honest, most of us got a little tired of telling the stories that guided or drove us into ministry. I don’t mind talking about myself and I don’t even mind talking about something as personal as the feeling of being called by God to ordained ministry. But telling the same story up to 10 times in one weekend can be a little draining.
The Bible gives a surprising variety of stories of people being called by God to specific tasks. And they are all different. When it comes to being called, one size does not fit all by any means. In the Old Testament God calls Moses to lead the people out of slavery; God calls Isaiah to speak God’s word to the people; and in this morning’s lesson God calls Jeremiah to be a prophet. One of the things that all three of these call stories has in common is that the person who is called initially resists being called. Moses mentions several reasons why God should call someone else: First he says, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” What he really is saying is, “I am nobody. I do not have enough status to speak to Pharaoh.”
God replied, “I will be with you.”
Moses raised another reason to God. He asked, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” Now this is pretty clever on Moses’ part. There is power in names, and the most powerful name of all is the name of the God who made Heaven and Earth. Knowing God’s name would be really, really helpful. And God gave an evasive, elusive answer, “I AM WHO I AM.” “Tell the Israelites, ‘I AM’ has sent me to you.’” And this elusive name is even more elusive than it sounds in English, because the Hebrew verb ‘I am” also means “I will be.” My favorite rendering of this name is God saying, “I will be everything tomorrow demands.”
This isn’t enough for Moses, he asks God what to do in the event that the Israelites don’t believe he’s been sent by God. God gives him a couple miracles to perform, magic tricks, really. Moses can throw his shepherd’s staff down on the ground and it will become a snake and he can put his hand inside his robe and pull it out covered with leprosy, then put it back in and be healed. Surely, the Israelites will trust those signs and know that Moses’ call is authentic. Well, it’s still not quite enough for Moses. He says, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” It’s not clear exactly what Moses’ problem was. Some believe he stuttered, others that he just didn’t have a way with words, maybe he spoke Hebrew with an Egyptian accent, because he grew up the adopted son of one of Pharaoh’s daughters. Well, God got a little testy: “Who gives speech to mortals?...I will be with your mouth.” Moses begged, “O my Lord, please send someone else.” It says God’s anger kindled against Moses, [literally, God’s nose got hot at Moses]] but God relented and let Moses’ brother Aaron do the talking. One call, four reservations.
When God appeared to Isaiah in the temple, Isaiah said, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
But a seraph, that is a really cool, flying snake-like creature, touched Isaiah’s lips with a coal from the altar and blotted out Isaiah’s sin. When God asked, “Whom shall I send?” Isaiah answered, “Here am I; send me!” And yes, we’ll be closing worship this morning with that song!
Jeremiah says, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
But God reassures Jeremiah saying, “Do not say ‘I am only a boy.’ And God put the Lord’s words into Jeremiah’s mouth and Jeremiah was appointed to speak God’s word as God’s prophet.
All three of these people were not only called by God, but touched and reassured by God. They needed to be encouraged. And one thing I love to point out about these stories is that God didn’t give any of these men super powers. God promised to be with them—and to work with them as they are. If anything in their situation changed it was their ability to recognize and trust the presence of God in their lives.
I’ve gone on and on about three people who were called by God in the Old Testament. That’s OK, we won’t be here too long this morning, even though in one sense I’m only half done—I still need to talk about the disciples whom Jesus called in the New Testament. Jesus called; and they followed. That’s all. In the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John drop their nets and follow Jesus. In the next chapter, the part that Emmeline read, Jesus calls Levi, a tax collector. He says, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.
There’s a lot going on in the background here. The first four disciples people called were working men, we might think of them blue collar today. The next one he called, Levi, was a tax collector, and tax collectors did not have a very good reputation. They are lumped in with other sinners often in the gospels—as though to be a tax collector is to be a sinner. Tax collectors had a reputation for collecting more than they were due and keeping the profit. Today we might think of them as white collar criminals. But Jesus had this immediate, instant effect on people. He told them to follow him and they did. Just like that. Imagine what it would take for you to walk off your job, walk away from your family and home to follow someone you’ve just met. I have moments of sudden insight and clarity, but nothing like the first five disciples had. The closest thing I can compare it to is love at first sight.
On a day when we’re celebrating that ten young people have decided to affirm the Christian faith and join this particular part of the Body of Christ, we need to recognize that each of them, and each of us, has been called to follow Christ by the One God in a unique, personal way. Sometimes people ask me whether something they have experienced is a call, or just a passing idea. And one thing I know for sure is this: God calls back. If it’s truly a call from God, it will not going away. It will nag you, it may feel crazy, difficult, impossible, confusing and more. The one thing I can promise is it will be persistent. A call from God will place a claim on your life and you can resist it, and you can put God on hold, but God will keep calling.
Each student wrote an individual statement of faith and the affirmation of faith which will appear later in the service draws on many of those statements. I believe it’s really important for Christians to put their beliefs on paper, because you can return to those statements and see how your faith has grown and changed. God never, ever called anyone to stay exactly the same. God is dynamic, the Holy Spirit, one of the three personas of God we recognize today on Pentecost is the very dynamism of God. And we’re alive, so our faith will constantly change. Still, if we don’t sit down and record what our faith is, in words, once in a while, we can lose sight of where we’ve been and how we’ve grown and been changed. Confirmands, I put your statements of faith into frames, hoping and expecting that you’ll find them occasionally, that the frames will keep them safe, but also keep them accessible.
I was delighted with your answers to the part of the statement of faith that began “I have decided to join the church because….” this is your choice, completely. No one can force you to join the church, what pleased me was the expectation that you brought to this statement. One of you said simply, “because I want to grow in faith,” another wrote “I love the church and the family that helps me open my mind to new ideas about the Lord,” and yet another said “I want to continue to pursue my faith.” Today you are not graduating from church, you’re saying you’re committed to growing in Christ, and growing with this group of people. And let me tell you again, I’ve said it at least five times this year in class. The members of the church love you. They have watched you grow up. They have cherished you and they have nurtured you.
And what you’re doing today has become counter-cultural. Really. A study by the Pew Research Center that was released last week found that as a nation, Americans are becoming less religiously observant. About the only religious group that is growing is “Nones,” that is “n-o-n-e-s, those who claim no religious affiliation. And this group is not hostile to “organized religion” so much as indifferent. The study suggests that it’s more acceptable in our culture today to say, “Religion just doesn’t work for me,” a decade ago these people might have said, “I’m Presbyterian” or “I’m Methodist.”
And this generation has more claims on their time and energy. Many of you compete at a very high level in sports, others are skilled musicians and actors, you’re all good students. There are lots of ways you can use your gifts and talents and time. And in our society it’s families who practice faith, any faith, that are going against the prevailing culture.
Confirmands, somehow, some way God has called, or nudged, or nagged you into joining this congregation. That makes you special and unusual. It also places a claim on you. But more importantly, it also sets you free to grow, to learn, to discover what the living God, the gracious Christ and that ever-moving Holy Spirit is calling you to be and do. We are all delighted to join you on this journey. Amen.