Call, Gift, and Response

The Prophet Jeremiah by Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A sermon on Jeremiah 1:4-10 given by The Rev. Teri Daily on January 30, 2022…

The gifts of God surround you. We live in a world that often forgets its own giftedness, but God’s gifts come to us every second of every minute of every day. We just risk losing that knowledge, or we tuck it away in the back of our minds where it barely even penetrates our consciousness. 

If there’s a religious motto in our culture at all, it’s along the lines of: “Your life is a gift from God, but what you do with it is up to you.” As if God kick-started it and it’s up to us to take over from here. What a burden that is to carry around. But that’s not really the way things are – it’s not like God infuses us with energy and then we wind down until we burn out in chaos and disorder. The second law of thermodynamics can’t make sense of the grace of God.

There’s a story I heard growing up that I’ve never forgotten. It’s corny, so brace yourselves. During the closing hymn of a church service, at the altar call, a man came forward to rededicate his life to Christ.  And as he came down the aisle, he said loudly: “Lord, fill me with your Spirit.”  After prayer, the man returned to his seat.  The following Sunday the closing hymn came, and once again the man left his seat and headed down the aisle, crying: “Lord, fill me with your Spirit.” This went on every Sunday until finally one day as the man was coming down the aisle saying, “Lord, fill me with your Spirit,” a person in the congregation yelled out: “Don’t do it, Lord, he’s got a leak.” It’s corny, I know, but if it helps to save face, at least I’m turning the story on its head. Because for me the hero of the story isn’t the person who yells out from the pew. Instead, the hero is the man who faithfully comes down the aisle week after week, to be filled time and time again.

Now take Jeremiah, at the point when the word of the Lord first comes to him. Joining the prophets of Israel before him, Jeremiah’s call follows a pattern strikingly similar to theirs. There’s the actual call of the prophet – the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah saying: “before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Next comes the insistence by the prophet on his or her inadequacy – “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Then follows the assurance that God will give the prophet the words that need to be said – “Now I have put my words in your mouth.” And our reading ends here. 

But to leave Jeremiah’s story there would be to give a false impression, because this call is not a one-time event. Jeremiah isn’t commissioned only then to be left to navigate the minefields of prophecy all by himself.  What we see in the book of Jeremiah is that the word of the Lord will come to this prophet again and again and again – each time a renewal of the call, each time a renewal of the gift needed to fulfill that call. 

If the story of Jeremiah reminds us that God’s call in our lives and the gifts of God come to us time and time again, well then it also reminds us what constitutes a faithful response to these gifts – to offer them back. No sooner are the words placed in Jeremiah’s mouth than they stream out; they become words that linger in the air like incense – granted, sometimes a little more judgmental and pungent than most incense, but incense nonetheless.

This “offering back” is a pattern we see repeated over and over in scripture. There’s Israel.  What’s the proper response of Israel to the gift of land God has provided her? To let it rest or lie fallow every seventh year as an offering to God. One tenth of produce and flocks were to be set aside according to Jewish tradition. When a barren Hannah has a son she names Samuel, she gives him over to service in the Lord’s house. And when the disciples find in Christ a life like they’ve never known, they also hear these words from his mouth: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will find it.” It seems the only response to a gift of pure grace is to offer it back.

Throughout our tradition, the order of things seems to be call, gift, and response – over and over again. God’s call to us, gift’s from God needed to fulfill that call, and then our response – the rhythm of our ministry in the world over and over again.

It’s easy to think we have our call all figured out and to stop listening. But like Jeremiah, no matter what form God’s call to us takes – whether we are lay persons or ordained – that call is not a one-time event. God’s call will come to us many times over. We may experience it in the desperate face of someone who has no healthcare for their child or no place to sleep tonight, in the first rays of a new morning, in the voice of a child asking about heaven, in our job responsibilities or our family responsibilities, in a beautiful or not-so-beautiful passage of scripture, in a heart-felt passion for something, in our own grief or in the grief belonging to someone else, in the glorious candlelight of a Christmas service, in as many ways as there are people on this earth and more.  

And if the call of God comes to us over and over again, so will the gifts we need to fulfill it. God will not leave us to our own devices, with just whatever training and good sense we’ve gleaned along the way. As we read in the book of Lamentations, God’s gifts and mercies come to us new every day. It’s just that we live in a world that often forgets its own giftedness. We think everything is up to us. We’ve torn the sacred from the secular. And in the process, the work of our lives has ceased to be an offering and has become a burden instead. 

Now more than ever, we need to know that our lives, in all their complexity and messiness, are sacred. We need to be reminded that our lives are not just given to us at birth, but at every moment along the way. We need to know that the love of God sustains every breath that we take, pervades every inch of our being, and is greater than any darkness we will ever face.  Simply and not very originally put, we need to hear the good news.

And so this is the good news I want to share with you today: Call, gift, and response. Like Jeremiah, God’s call will come to us over and over again. And when the gifts that you need to fulfill that call come to you as well (and they will), may you offer them up to God in the complex mixture of your life, only to receive it all back again in the bread and the wine of Eucharist. And may the work of your life be, for you, an offering.

Call, Gift, and Response
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