Anglican Church of Canada
Fourth Sunday After Epiphany, January 31, 2016
Jeremiah 1:4-10 1Corinthians 13:1-13
So we begin with the story of the call of a prophet. The prophet Jeremiah, called in the year 627 BC or thereabouts to a ministry of announcing bad news to the people of Jerusalem for something over 40 years, until his dire predictions finally came true in the capture and destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire, and the great Exile.
So much for the historical background. And we can read this as a historical text, and find it perhaps very interesting, or not so much, depending on our interests or temperament. But of course that is not what we come here for, for a history lesson. We come to hear these ancient texts from a faith perspective. And so, perhaps, we might ask what we can learn from the story of Jeremiah, what lessons he might have for us, and we would be getting closer to it. But we wouldn’t be quite there yet. We really read these passages from a faith perspective when we listen to them as words spoken directly to us. When all the ancient history and all the intervening centuries fade for a moment into the background, and we hear these words, each of us, as words spoken directly to our soul. That’s when they become for us the word of God, when we hear God speaking to us through them; when we hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.
Now that doesn’t mean that we receive every word of Scripture as a great oracle for our lives. We are simply trying them on for size, seeing whether they fit our lives or not, seeing what our lives would look like under the perspective of these words. They won’t all fit. For example:
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.
Nah, probably not. I doubt many of us would see ourselves in these promises. That’s more power than we want, certainly more power than we have. We are not likely called to be great prophets.
But how about:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
How do these lines fit, how does it feel to hear them spoken to you?
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
Not to be a prophet to the nations or anything; we have agreed, that part doesn’t apply. But to be known by God from even before our birth, to be consecrated, dedicated by God to a purpose? I suspect most of us might find this also a little hard to believe; important and great people like Jeremiah, sure – but that I was known and called by God before my very birth – it might seem a stretch. And yet I suggest that this is no more than what the gospel tells us, pure and simple. That we are loved by God, that is the gospel. And that love is not some general abstract principle – what kind of love would that be? Love is by its very nature specific and personal. God loves you, as the unique individual you are, warts and all, but also with your gifts and possibilities. Isn’t that what love is supposed to look like? As the love of our Creator, it spans our whole life, from before we came into being. And it is a love that gives our lives meaning: we are not here merely by chance, to spend our time any which way. Our lives have purpose.
Purpose. That is one of the big questions at stake in our society: do our lives have purpose? Interesting, the best-selling spiritual-religious guide of our time is Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life: clearly there is a hunger in a lot of people to find out if their lives have purpose. It’s not surprising, I think. We live in a culture where so much suggests to us that the purpose of life is to enjoy ourselves. Now don’t get me wrong – I like enjoyment as much as the next person. Enjoyment is good. The more enjoyment the better. But I would suggest that for the sole and supreme purpose of life many people find it a bit thin. It is after all our consumerist culture that makes enjoyment the ultimate goal. One enjoys a product. And this kind of thinking reduces more and more of our lives to just another product to be enjoyed. We can’t escape being consumers in this life, and maybe we don’t need to. But we have a right to demand more of life, more of ourselves, than just to fritter away our fourscore years and change in mere enjoyment. And so we seek a purpose.
The idea of purpose is connected with the idea of call or vocation. This, after all, is the call of Jeremiah we’re talking about. A special, spectacular call – a conversation with God, apparently. Not the kind of call most of us receive. Some of us here this morning have heard a call into ordained ministry: but I assure you, that call is not much like the call of Jeremiah – at least it wasn’t for me or for any of the colleagues and students I’ve talked to about this over the years. It is more like anyone’s call. I think of my two daughters, in that stage of life where they are discerning their future paths, exploring teaching and midwifery. These are vocations they are exploring, as much as ministry is a vocation. There is a wonderful definition of vocation by the writer Frederick Buechner: “Vocation is where your own deep longing and the world’s deep need intersect”. It is about finding a place where you can live out your passion and your gifts in a way that meets the needs of others. You can find that place in any honest profession, if you find the place where your gifts and passions can flourish for the good of others.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to find their vocation. And not everyone has the luxury of earning a living by following their vocation, either. For many the need to put bread on the table trumps the sense of inner vocation. Fortunately, our vocation is not limited to the work we are paid for. In our family life we also live out our vocation, as spouse or parent, son or daughter, brother or sister. We live out our vocation by our life in the community, by working at the food bank, singing in a community choir, serving on the board of a community organization. In all of this we are using the gifts and passion placed in us by our Creator, who made each of us the person we are, to serve the world’s needs. And we live out our vocation here in church also, as we use our varying and particular gifts to build each other up.
That is the point we have been hearing from St. Paul over the past couple of weeks, in the second reading, as he talks about spiritual gifts. The point that Paul keeps emphasizing is the variety of gifts. We do not all have the same gifts, because we have been created different from one another, as unique individuals, and that is our glory! Remember the metaphor of the body from last week – we can’t all be an eye, or a hand – we need to be different, to have different gifts, and to rely on one another to make up the gifts we do not have. As we discussed in the Bible study, there is something wonderfully freeing about this image – we don’t have to be good at everything, it is okay that there are things we are not so great at – in fact, it’s more than okay, it’s the way it’s supposed to be, so that we rely on one another. And so there are many different gifts exercised in this place: there are those who are strong in prayer, those who have practical willing hands to keep our building running, those who find the kind and comforting word for people in sorrow, those who have the gifts to do the administrative work, those who exercise the gift of hospitality, welcoming and feeding; those who cheer us and encourage us by their lively humour, and so on. And each one as essential to the body as any other.
And we each have the gift of own unique life experience and faith perspective. We do not all encounter God in precisely the same way, we do not understand spiritual matters in the same words and images. And that too is a gift that enriches the whole community. That is really the point of the Lenten devotional project, and I have been wonderfully moved over the past week or so as the first submissions have trickled in. Again, it is the variety that is so moving. You have sent in Bible verses, stories of your life experiences, poems, practical advice. You have sent in accounts of deep faith rooted in childhood, and stories of struggle, and expressions of doubt and questions. No one perspective is the right one, none is better than any of the others, each one an expression of a particular calling to walk the faith journey in our own way. And each one encourages and enriches the whole community. Please, keep them coming.
In all the variety of the ways we are called, in all the diversity of our individuality, there is one common thread, which Paul picks up in today’s reading. Certainly the most well-known words he wrote, this hymn to love. He did not actually write it for weddings, though it fits very well there. He wrote it about the variety of gifts in the Christian community – as widely different as our talents and perspectives may be, they should never divide us, and they will not divide us, if they are done in love. Love for Paul is not so much a feeling as a practical attitude, a discipline, if you like – the practice of bearing with one another, of building one another up, of looking out for one another’s best interests. It is the greatest of the Spirit’s gifts, the one that holds all the others together, that gives them their purpose.
It gives us our purpose. Here is the one clue to a Purpose-Driven Life. Or, to quote another book title, aboriginal author Wab Kinew’s memoir of his journey with his dying father, it is The Reason You Walk. It is the practice of love, of caring for one another, of comforting, supporting, encouraging, forgiving, delighting one another – that is what we are here for. That is the reason you walk. You may not be a prophet like Jeremiah or an apostle like Paul. But never doubt that, just like them, God knew you before you even came into being, formed you with gifts that are your own, unique gifts, precious and necessary because no one else can offer precisely what you can offer, yourself; that God consecrated you for the purpose of being a vehicle of his love for his people.