Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
February 3, 2019 –Fourth Sunday After Epiphany
I shared my Call story with you last week…the series of coincidences that made entering local church ministry unavoidable. All that I had done or left undone…in the end…prepared me as well as anything could for ministry in a parish.
There was also a sense in all of it that I had to do this. I might be struck by lightening if I didn’t say Yes to the district superintendent when they needed someone to lead worship and help out at Huntley United Methodist Church.
I had been to hell by then and I didn’t want to go back. That helped, too. I saw many ways a church could transform a community and the people in it as it transformed itself. I said Yes. The Call had come to me…at that time…when I couldn’t say anything else.
We continue our examination of Call stories today with a prophet’s call to his own people. The Lord anoints Jeremiah to say the Word the people need to hear to know they are called…blessed to be a blessing.
“Israel, if you really want to come back to me, get rid of your disgusting idols. Make promises only in my name, and do what you promise! Then all nations will praise me, and I will bless them.”
Do what is good. There will only be so many days in your life, but the amount of good you can do cannot be measured or counted. Squeeze the bad out with good deeds. Don’t leave time for the devil.
Follow in the way that leads to life. Or as Brother Van, the pioneering United Methodist minister to Montana in frontier days, liked to put it, “Be good and you will be happy.”
To hear the Call is one thing, though, and to understand it as a loving claim upon your life is something else. All the prophets except Ezekiel had trouble accepting it.
Moses did everything he could to get out of it. Jacob wrestled with God all night before he knew what had happened to him. Isaiah knew he was unworthy: “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the King, the Lord of heavenly forces!”
And Jeremiah balked at the hour of his Call before he came to that day he called to all Israel in the name of the Lord. We read God’s claim upon him in Jeremiah 1, “The Lord’s word came to me:
“Before I created you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart; I made you a prophet to the nations.”
And we hear Jeremiah’s surprise and hesitation: “Ah, Lord God,” I said, “I don’t know how to speak because I’m only a child.” There must be some mistake.
I recall that in the days just after I accepted the appointment to Huntley, my friends were stunned to hear the news. They said, “You?”
I couldn’t blame them. I was surprised. My mother was surprised. The church was surprised…to have a lawyer for a pastor. But there we were, doing ministry in the community.
God gave Jeremiah some assurance that all he needed to do was to listen and watch and see and speak…and all would be well. Again, from the first chapter of Jeremiah: “The Lord responded, “Don’t say, ‘I’m only a child.’ Where I send you, you must go; what I tell you, you must say. Don’t be afraid of them, because I’m with you to rescue you,” declares the Lord.”
So Jeremiah went and spoke. He suffered much abuse from people who did not want to hear the truth or do what was right…They wanted to believe what they wanted to believe and they wanted to do what was convenient…or profitable…or pleasurable.
Still, when all was said and done, he lived out one of the greatest ministries to be found among God’s people. Not a priest or a Pharisee, not a scribe or an officer of the court, but just one who listened for what was right and tried to speak it and do it.
We are like Jeremiah and we have heard the Lord’s call as a blessing and as a burden. We have been blessed so that we might be a blessing. We have unburdened ourselves from a great debt, not so we have to do less, but so we can be free to do more good in more ways to more people in more places at more times than we ever imagined before.
The way is not an easy one but it is full of little surprises along the way that make the journey worthwhile. I read a story in the paper this week about two women who had started a soup kitchen 30 years ago at Central Christian Church in Kalispell.
It started with an idea that grew out of a discussion about some ministry that they might be able to do in the community. They served 17 people 30 years ago and the soup kitchen has had many different volunteers since then.
The venue changed. The volunteers came and went. The availability of food ebbed and flowed. But these two women would not quit.
They realized along the way that they weren’t just providing meals. They were providing a community to their church, to their volunteers and to people who hungered and thought they just came to eat.
Some came back to help wash dishes or to serve other people who needed a meal, too. One of them said that seeing the impact filling a momentary need like hunger has on the lives of those she’s served over the years has shown her how big a difference one person can make with a bit of determination and a lot of help.
“You see so much wrong in the world,” she said. “It’s really satisfactory to know that God’s given you the talents to address one of them.”
They served 12,000 meals last year.
There are all kinds of issues that can grow out of a ministry like that, but there are many blessings and all kinds of understandings, too. The Lord is in the middle of it all.
We read Paul’s great testimony about faith, hope and love this week and we think of the weddings or funerals we have heard it at. But Paul is talking about his ministry in the chapter before this passage and the chapter after it.
What he is trying to convey to us is that there are blessings that you receive as you give a blessing to those you are ministering to. Turn away from evil and embrace the good. Welcome those who are weak in faith, not so you can argue with them, but so you can share what faith you have with them.
We do not enter into a ministry to gain anything for ourselves, but we cannot give a blessing without receiving it. We must hold it to pass it on. And while we think we are building up others’ lives, it is really our life that we are working on.
Glide Memorial Church in downtown San Francisco found itself in a rough part of the central business district. They were about to close when they decided to focus their ministry not on their members, but upon the homeless population around them.
Now they are a vibrant center of worship and ministry that has done more to help people than they could ever have imagined. Their worship services draw upon the talents they found outside their door, and it is an experience you will never forget.
Extending faith to others builds up your own faith. Meet them where they are and treat them as if they were already where they need to be. Let the Lord take care of the rest.
Sharing hope with those who have no hope gives us a chance to understand how important our own hope is to us. You can’t open the doors wide to let hope out without letting it in…finding out that you really do have hope yourself.
And while we are building up faith and hope in others and discovering it in ourselves, Paul tells us that we learn the lesson that so many great authors and poets have been telling us for so long is the key to it all.
Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. That is the payoff. That is the brass ring. That is the thing that sustains us and gives us all we need to grow as children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ. Without it, we are nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. With it, all things are possible.
It is often said that charity begins at home. But it is also said that when charity begins at home, it never leaves the house. We need to take care of ourselves and each other, to be sure, but it cannot end there or it will grow smaller and more faint day by day.
We see love happen whenever there is a need, like the Blackfeet Parish faced last winter. Suddenly the Columbia Falls church became this command center for gathering and sending supplies to keep people from starving or freezing to death.
They were doing something that no other organization could do. People were cooperating to find truckloads of firewood and more truckloads of potatoes, and clothing and whatever else might be needed.
The faith communities that gave themselves to that effort found their own faith and their own hope and their own love for their churches renewed and refueled and ready for more.
It doesn’t always end the way we would like it to, with a cheering crowd outside in the street praising God and asking for more. Jesus this day is cast out of his own home congregation because he shows them his gifts and graces and they are amazed.
Then he tells them that they are called to give it to non-Jews. The widow of Sidon, living in an area that no respectable Jew would enter, was saved by their great prophet Elijah. And his successor Elisha cured Naaman, a commander of the occupying army, of leprosy.
So Isaiah’s call to preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor must be given to all who will receive it if it is to be a gift at all.
Some who receive it might not deserve it, but God help us if we start praying only for what we deserve. That gets to be a pretty small package pretty quickly and we need more than we deserve to live out a full and happy life.
We need grace, and the surest way, the quickest way, the most powerful way to receive it is to give it as freely as Jesus gave himself for Gentiles like us. How are we to succeed in such a divine task in such a selfish and hostile world?
Frederich Nietzsche once observed, simply, that those who have a why to live for can bear almost any how. It is through ministering to the suffering of others that we are freed from…overcome…our own suffering.
And the why we have to live for is the love of God in Jesus Christ… the love that never fails. O Lord, what is it that you want to accomplish in the world through us…through me… this day? Amen.