This is the sermon I preached today, the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 30, 2022. The lectionary is found here.
Some of you have heard the story of my 46-year discernment for the priesthood. I knew very young, at about age six, long before women were ordained in the Episcopal Church, that I was called to be a priest. It is an odd thing, really, to know deep down in the very core of your being that God is speaking to you, especially when what God is inviting you to is not considered by those around you to be the “right” thing or, as in my case, an invitation you are allowed to accept. And yet there it is: a profound sense of understanding who God created you to be and how God intends for you to live.
These invitations from God are rarely straightforward or easy. I know I am not alone in the years of discernment about whether, and then how, to respond. A part of the discernment, a necessary part I truly believe, is the doubt, the questions, the “are-you-sure-you-are-talking-to-me, God?” moments. Part of the discernment about the call, whether months or years or decades, is coming to the awareness that God’s call is to you in your full self, complete with the questions and the doubts and whatever messiness is a part of who you are. God calls the one God created, and nothing of who we are is a surprise to God. The surprise in the receiving and responding to the invitation is wholly and solely ours.
The reading from the Book of Jeremiah is about this very thing: knowing God is calling you to live your life in a specific way and responding from the very depths and fullness of one’s humanity, complete with all the doubts and questions.
I love Jeremiah’s honesty with God. He knows it is God who is speaking to him. In the first few lines of the passage, he recounts God’s assurances that he is known – that he has always been known – by God. Furthermore, he knows it is God saying that he has been “consecrated,” meaning dedicated to service to God, since before he was born. The God who created him, who knows him more deeply and intimately than he can know himself, created him to be a prophet, to go out into the world speaking God’s truth to power and all manner of human misbehavior.
Even knowing it is God who is speaking to him, Jeremiah balks. His response to God is along the lines of, “Are you sure you have the right guy? I’m only a boy. No way can I be qualified to do this. Surely you must be thinking of someone else.” And this is where we hear loudly and clearly that God is fully confident in what God is doing, that God wasn’t having a lazy or confused day when Jeremiah was “appointed a prophet to the nations.” God reprimands Jeremiah, saying essentially that Jeremiah is to do as he is told, to speak God’s truth to the people. God even puts it on the table that this will not be easy. God gets ahead of what I can imagine is one of Jeremiah’s next objections: his fear and lack of “back-up” when he faces what will undoubtedly be, at best, some less than enthusiastic folks; at worst, folks who respond to him with outright anger and derision, or with threats and bodily harm. All of these responses would have been expected and, I imagine, more than a little daunting to Jeremiah.
In what I experience as a movingly tender moment in today’s reading, God reaches out to touch Jeremiah, to reassure him that he can do what he is called to do, what he was created to do. This is a reminder that God has given us all that we need to live as God intends. The challenge, as with so many other aspects of active, embodied faith, is to let go of whatever it is that holds us back from responding to God. At their core, these calls from God are invitations to remember who and whose we are. God knows us best – better than our closest family and friends, better even than we know ourselves. God accepts us fully as we are: both in the ways we are created in God’s image and in the ways we have moved away from that image.
What God wants from us is what God wanted from Jeremiah and Noah and Moses and Sarah and Mary and countless others named and unnamed in our Scriptures: that we bring our full selves as we respond to the call, whatever it may be. God wants us to trust that God will not let us down, that God will be the God who loved us into being and will love us beyond the end of time.
The 20th Century German poet, Rainier Maria Rilke, wrote a collection of poems called The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, one of which I share with you now. Called, “Go to the Limits of Your Longing,” it is a poem that I first discovered during a period of doubt during my discernment:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall, go to the limits of your longing. Embody me.
Flare up like a flame and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. Don't let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
My hope and prayer is that all of you, each of you, will feel encouraged by the knowledge that you are known fully and completely by God, especially as you pay attention to the ways God is working in and through you.
My hope and prayer is that all of you, each of you, will remember the stories of Jeremiah and the many, many others who listen for the voice of God speaking to them about ongoing conversion into deeper relationship with God.
My hope and prayer is that all of you, each of you, will find the courage to respond with the faith and trust that is yours by God’s grace.
Finally, my hope and prayer is that as a parish, as a community known deeply and fully by God, we will feel the same encouragement, be equally as mindful of the stories as we listen for God’s voice in our ongoing discernment and in our ministries, and that we have the courage to respond with the faith and trust we, too, have received by the grace of God.
Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland