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What If What They Say Is True?

What If What They Say Is True?
First Lesson Sermons For Sundays After Pentecost (Middle Third) Cycle C
Whether through the complicated process of socialization or good manners or simple maturity, somehow we learn how to respond appropriately to particular phrases in particular settings. "Paper or plastic?" "Cash or charge?" "Smoking or non-smoking?" We negotiate and navigate our lives by knowing what to say and when to say it:

"The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you." "And also with you."

"Excuse me." "Please." "Thank you." "You're welcome."

"I love you." "I love you, too."

"I'm sorry." "It's okay."

"Lift up your hearts." "We lift them up to the Lord."

"What kind of dressing for your salad?"

"I'm fine, how are you?"
We learn the responses, the right answers, and then that knowledge provides us a shield of comfort and confidence as we go through life because we know what to say and what to do.

At work or play, home or school or church or wherever, we learn the specific languages and the peculiar vocabularies. We learn what is effective, authoritative, cool, popular, funny, acceptable. We learn what to say, and we learn what cannot be said. As we master the codes for proper behavior in these different contexts, we file this information alongside our passwords and PIN numbers and create for ourselves a sort of security blanket, a safe zone in which we live and move and have our being. It's a zone in which all is pretty predictable, pretty comfortable, and pretty enjoyable. We like knowing what to say.

But what do you do when something comes along that you're not prepared for? What do you do when something dislodges you from your comfort zone? What do you do when you are addressed in such a way that you don't immediately and confidently know the answer? Something so unusual, so unpredictable, so unfamiliar that you don't have a handy response?

In other words, what do you do when God calls you? For it seems to me that God's call will most likely come to us in unexpected ways, cast in tones that are disruptive and disturbing to our carefully crafted worlds. God's call is not going to fit easily into what we are already doing; it's not going to slide neatly into the patterns and codes that we already have learned. Just ask Jeremiah.

God makes a strong opening bid in this passage, pronouncing a divine claim on Jeremiah's life before he had even been born. "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you," God says to Jeremiah, "... I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations" (1:5). How's that for a word from outside the comfort zone? Nothing in his life could have prepared Jeremiah for this word because it is a word from beyond and before his life even began. It is a call unexpected in every sense. Unfamiliar, disorienting, destabilizing.

As Jeremiah struggles to put this extraordinary word from God into some kind of framework, he grasps at the language of protest, "Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how ..." (1:6). That's the first thing Jeremiah says in the book that bears his name: "I do not know how." It is something I say all the time. Maybe you have said it, too. "God, I do not know how to do what you are calling me to do. Nothing in my life has equipped me for this task. What you are asking of me does not fit into what I'm doing now. I am unable to categorize it, make sense of it, or understand how it is possible for me to do it."

As he voices his protest to God, Jeremiah lists his inadequacies, "I don't know how to speak for I am only a boy" (1:7). Jeremiah thinks he is limited by his skills and by his age, by who he is and by what he can do. Jeremiah is convinced that he is not qualified to be a prophet to the nations. He is sure of it. "I'm not very old and I'm not much of speaker, so God you should be looking for someone else."

But God's not buying it because God knows that Jeremiah is qualified for this task. Jeremiah is indeed able to do this work -- not because of who Jeremiah is, not on the basis of what Jeremiah can do, not because Jeremiah knows all the answers and has all the right words. None of that matters. Instead, Jeremiah is qualified because of who God is. Jeremiah is able because God is able. God's faithfulness empowers and equips us to respond to God's call.

Left on his own, Jeremiah could never do this work. He's too young and too poor a speaker. Left on his own, left behind his shield of familiarity, within his comfort zone, Jeremiah could never respond to God's call. But God's point in speaking this word is that Jeremiah will not be left on his own. "I'll show you where to go," God says. "I'll tell you what to say and I will be with you" (1:7-8). God does not call people and then leave them. God does not call you and then abandon you. God's faithfulness empowers and equips us to respond to God's call.

So lack of ability is no excuse. And age isn't either. Just as Jeremiah is not too young to do God's work, neither is a teenager I met recently among the 6,661 people at the Presbyterian Youth Triennium. Andy lives in New York City. He is the oldest of several children. He lives in a tough neighborhood. Drugs and gangs and guns are regular features in his environment. Andy told me how he sometimes dodges bullets on his way to his girlfriend's house. He shared with me his concerns about the safety of his younger brothers and sisters. He talked with me about his struggle to be a Christian in the violent place where he lives. Andy believes God has called him to be a witness of peace, but it's understandably hard for him to do when those he loves become victims. Andy can't respond to God's call on his own. He's just not qualified. Nonviolence is not within his comfort zone; nonviolence is not a response that has been conditioned in him. Yet Andy is finding he can do it, he can live peacefully, because the one who has called him to that life has also promised to be with him in all things. God is strengthening Andy to live the life that God has called him to.

Maybe God has been speaking a word to you, maybe God is calling you in a way that you can hardly believe because it doesn't fit neatly into the categories of your life. Maybe it's unfamiliar, disorienting, destabilizing and you don't know how to respond. Maybe it's a call to change your life, to take a different job, to accept a new position of service or leadership. Maybe it's a call to restore a relationship, to set new priorities, to suggest a fresh approach.

God calls Jeremiah "to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow" (1:10). Maybe God is calling you to something similar, to dismantling a structure that doesn't work very well, plucking up and pulling down an outmoded way of doing things. Sometimes, something old has to come down before something new can go up.

For example, the wall in Berlin had to come down before democracy could take hold in Eastern Europe. For example, it is only when an alcoholic admits her addiction, only when she starts the process of tearing down the addicted self by naming it for what it is, only then can she begin constructing a new life. In our lives, our church, our community, our nation, there is no shortage of things that need to be plucked up and pulled down. There are perhaps even things that need to be destroyed and overthrown. An attitude, a program, a system, a practice, a prejudice, a habit, a value. Maybe you are being called to be a voice for change, an agent of plucking up and pulling down, of destroying and overthrowing. You won't know how to respond to that call and you won't feel qualified to enact that call. But if you are willing, God is willing. And then there's no limit to what God can accomplish through you.

God's word to Jeremiah though is not just to tear down; it is also a call to build up. Maybe that is what God is calling you to do. To start something new, to advocate a fresh approach, to put forward a different perspective. I sensed among all those Presbyterian young people at the Youth Triennium that there is a new church being born in our midst, a church that worships with heart as well as mind, with body as well as soul, with energy and enthusiasm as well as reason and depth, a church in some ways very different from the Presbyterian Church I have known and served through the years, a church in some ways very different from this one. I wonder if God is calling me to help birth that church. Such a call certainly comes from beyond my comfort zone, and I'm pretty sure I'm not very well equipped to do such a work on my own. I'm wondering if I can muster enough faith to trust God's ability to bring forth new things?

What might God be calling you to build or to plant? Like me, you won't know how to respond to that call and you won't feel qualified to enact that call. But if we are willing, God is willing. And then there's no limit to what God can accomplish through us.

If we are willing. Maybe that's what it comes down to in the end. Maybe nothing much can happen until we are willing to step out in faith, to move outside of our comfort zones, to drop those shields of safety and confidence. Maybe God's greatest act is simply persuading us to trust that God is the power and the presence in, with, and through what God calls us to do. Maybe the hardest thing for God is getting us to realize that we can respond to God's call not because of who we are and what we know, but because of who God is. We are able because God is able.

Amidst all those teenagers, I rejoiced in the various and amazing ways God calls us, each of us. I also found myself moved by the new songs we learned; one in particular has stayed close to me:

What if what they say is true? What if you fed 5,000? What if you calmed the sea, can you calm me?

What if what they say is true? What if you walked on water? What if you healed disease, can you heal me?

What if what they say is true? What if you rose on Easter? What if you conquered death, can you conquer me?1

Can God conquer you? Can God break through your comfort zone with a word of promise that might enable you to do something, to say something, to believe something that you could never do or say or believe on your own? How is God calling you? Listen. Closely.


1. "What If What They Say Is True?" by Eli Morris, Hope Presbyterian Church, Memphis, Tennessee.

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