Carlos E. Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
August 21, 2013; 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 13:10-17
“But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you…’”
We begin, today, with a story — a true one, from American history. It’s about a boy named Christopher, who grew up in Missouri, the eleventh child in a family of fifteen. The family had moved to Missouri from Kentucky, following their good friend, Daniel Boone and his family. There they prospered — until calamity struck. Christopher was just eight years old when his father was killed by a falling tree, while clearing land.
The family was plunged into poverty overnight. Christopher dropped out of school to help work the farm. Then, at age fifteen, he was apprenticed to a saddlemaker in the nearby town of Franklin. It was the sort of thing often done by a family that had too many mouths to feed. It was not unlike selling one of your children.
“Selling” is the right term to use, because his mother, no doubt, received a substantial cash payment. Apprenticeship, in that time, was just one step up from slavery. Apprentices were “bound” to their masters for a number of years — anywhere from three to seven — by legal contract. There was simply no leaving. Any apprentice bold enough to try was subject to arrest by the authorities, who would return the boy for harsh beatings — and, very often, a doubling of the number of years in the contract.
The town of Franklin was located at the eastern terminus of the Santa Fe Trail. Working in the saddlemaker’s shop, young Christopher saw a lot of settlers, preparing to join wagon trains heading west. The boy had an uneasy soul. He was desperate to go with them.
Christopher craved big sky and endless plains: the spirit of adventure the West seemed to promise. Out there on the Trail, he imagined, a man could be truly free. On the Trail, he could make something of himself. Rather than building other men’s saddles, he could fashion a life out there, on horseback, where there was no apprenticeship law: only the Law of Nature.
But, there he sat, as month succeeded month: tanning leather and cutting it into pieces for his master to stitch together. Christopher “Kit” Carson only lasted two years as a saddlemaker before secretly signing on as a hand with a wagon train, His job was to take care of the horses and mules.
Kit never was much good at saddlemaking. We know that because his master waited a whole month before posting notices of his runaway apprentice: and when he did, he offered a reward of one cent.
Kit Carson was all of sixteen years old when he hit the trail. He was to become a mountain man, an Army scout, a guide for John C. Fremont in his conquest of California — and eventually the only general in U.S. Army history who never learned how to read or write.
His is the quintessential American frontier story. Kit Carson, mountain man, was the original rugged individualist. His life story — often exaggerated — provided fodder for many a dime novel.
What I’ve told you, though — this tale of his broken apprenticeship — is no exaggeration. Kit Carson was a man who refused to be bound, a man who insisted on making his own choices.
It’s fitting, I think, that we keep his story in mind as we turn to today’s Old Testament lesson: the Call of Jeremiah. Here, too, is a boy who’s told by someone else what will become of his life — only this is no ordinary saddlemaker telling him so. This is the Divine Saddlemaker, who will throw a saddle on this boy, Jeremiah, and ride him into all kinds of perilous places.
It’s clear that God has chosen Jeremiah to become an apprentice:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5)
“Before you were born I consecrated you…” Can you think of a better way of saying Jeremiah has no choice in the matter? That Hebrew word translated, here, as “consecrated” could just as well be translated “ordained.” We use the word “ordained” to refer to a solemn ceremony at the start of someone’s service as minister, elder or deacon. Yet, God says Jeremiah is ordained a prophet before he’s even out of the womb! That boy has no way out. He can’t even escape by flunking Hebrew: the apprenticeship contract is already signed, sealed and delivered before he draws his first breath.
Pay attention, too, to the little phrase, “prophet to the nations.” The word “nations,” in the Hebrew — and in the Greek, too, for that matter — refers not to the people of Israel, but to every other nation. This boy, Jeremiah, will in his time become a truly international figure. He will issue edicts, in the Lord’s name, to the Kings of Babylon and Egypt — not to mention the pathetic, powerless rulers of Judah.
Years later, Jeremiah finds himself in a caravan of exiles, being carted off to Babylon — the empire that has just overrun his little nation in a “shock and awe” military campaign. He is astonished to see their caravan stopped, by orders of the King. The royal emissary, coming straight from Nebuchadnezzar himself, is asking for Jeremiah by name. The King has ordered that Jeremiah alone, out of all that sorry column of refugees, be given his freedom, and sent back home to Judah. Whether that’s because the King doesn’t want this troublemaker in Babylon, or whether he figures Jeremiah will do more to advance Babylonian power by keeping Judah on edge is anybody’s guess.
The point is, Jeremiah learns from the Lord, at the very outset, that his call as “prophet to the nations” will take him way outside his comfort zone. God is calling him, in many ways, to become a man without a country.
We could say Jeremiah — called and consecrated in the womb — doesn’t have a thing to say about it: but that’s not entirely true. Jeremiah tries to object. Oh, does he try:
“Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” (Jeremiah 1:6)
“I am only a boy.” You think that’s going to make the slightest difference, Jeremiah? God called you before you were even a boy! Before you were an infant, in fact. Before you were the twinkle in your parent’s eye, as the saying goes.
But, isn’t that always the way with us: when it comes to this troubling question of whether or not God is calling you or me to do something?
“God, you’ve gotta be kidding! I can’t do that! I am only…”
You fill in the blank. You fill it in, because you know what your favored answer is — the all-purpose excuse that keeps you mired right where you are, every time it crosses your mind that God may want you to step out of the daily grind and venture something new, for the sake of your faith! Every time, in other words, you begin to suspect you could have a call from God.
Now, when I say “call from God,” I’m not talking about going to seminary and becoming a minister. That’s my call. It’s probably not yours (though it could be — only you can say). When the Lord sends a team out onto the field, it’s not composed exclusively of quarterbacks. What a train wreck that would be! Someone’s needed to hike the ball, and someone to catch it. Others are needed to block on the front line and kick field goals — even carry water, and write press releases. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians:
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7)
“The common good” — the good of the team, not the glorification of the individual. It’s a story very different from Kit Carson’s: the rugged individualist sallying forth to seek his fortune. There’s no fortune at all in this story — no chance, no mere roll of the dice. Jeremiah’s seeking no fortune. He’s seeking the will of God.
For him, it becomes a matter of supreme joy. Not that he has nothing to complain about (the Lamentations of Jeremiah are a whole separate book of the Bible, chronicling his many complaints!). No, it’s just that becoming prophet to the nations is Jeremiah’s call, his destiny, the one thing he was placed on this earth to do.
Jeremiah says yes, eventually. He will remember, all his life, something else the Lord said to him that day:
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 1:7-8)
In other words, God’s saying to Jeremiah: “Don’t worry, son, you won’t be out there alone. I’ve got your back.”
Isn’t this so typical of the way God operates? God calls all kinds of people, to do all kinds of crazy things in this world. As with those men mending their nets by the Sea of Galilee, called by Jesus, God doesn’t even seem to look for qualified people. God calls first, and qualifies later. “Sure, jump into the deep end. I know you don’t know how to swim: but I am with you to deliver you,” says the Lord. “Be patient. I will teach you everything you need to know.”
So, what’s the “deep end” God’s calling you to jump into? What’s the thing you’ve been feeling you ought to be doing, but about which you keep saying — like Jeremiah — “I’m only…”
A boy, in his case — too young, too green, too inexperienced. What is it for you? Too young… too old… too strapped for funds… too tied down, at the moment… too tired… too afraid? Or do you shift from one excuse to the other, every time that hint of a calling bubbles up?
It will keep bubbling up, you know. If the call’s from God, it will do that. Remember how it is, in the Bible, with that classic tale of God’s call to the boy, Samuel? God says, “Samuel,” and Samuel wakes from a sound sleep, saying “Who said that?” It happens again and again. God just keeps calling — whispering is more like it. But God keeps at it. Until Samuel says, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:1-18)
A call doesn’t have to be spectacular. It doesn’t always have to set (or re-set) the entire direction of our lives. Somebody once said it’s like God has given us each a thousand dollars, to offer back, in service. For some, the best way to respond is to take the entire thousand-dollar bill and lay it on the altar saying, “Here, Lord, it’s yours: take all of it!”
For others of us — probably a large majority, I expect — it’s more like cashing in the thousand and getting a whole lot of coins in exchange. Then, you walk around with a roll of quarters in your pocket all the time. When you see a need that can be met by one of those quarters, you reach into your pocket and pull one out. You do it again and again, each time God places a need in your path — and, at the end of the day, you will have used your thousand bucks as faithfully as the person who laid the whole thing on the altar, right at the beginning.
Either way, it’s a hard thing to do: because of all that Kit Carson mythology, that’s woven so deeply into our culture. There are voices that say to us all, from a very early age: “Choose your path in life. Figure out what it is you want to do. And, if you reach the end of your schooling and you still don’t know, then what you need to do is go out and find yourself.”
Well, what if finding ourselves is not what we really need to do at all? What if the most important thing is to get found: by God?
The good news is, if you’re a disciple of Jesus Christ, you already have been found! You just may need to listen a little more intently, and probably a little longer than you have, so far.
It’s a question of values. It’s a matter of keeping an ear out for what’s important in life, and not to let ourselves get distracted. This next story has nothing to do with the church — in fact, it’s about a man, Steve Jobs of Apple Computer, who didn’t even believe in God, in the conventional sense — but it’s a good illustration of finding a calling, all the same.
There was a famous incident when the new Apple Computer company was doing very well — so well, Steve Jobs realized he had to find an experienced business executive to see to the management details, so he could stay focused on the creative aspects. Jobs went after one of the big guns in American business: a man named John Scully, senior vice-president of the Pepsi soft-drink company. Everyone who knew John Scully was convinced he was heading straight for the senior executive suite — if not at Pepsi, then at some other Fortune 500 company.
Apple was a brash, young Silicon Valley start-up. It was a darling of Wall Street investors, but it was very small, and the company’s future was far from assured. Scully was fascinated by what Steve Jobs had done, so when he got an invitation to dinner, he accepted. He figured it would be a learning experience, if nothing else.
Jobs told him right from the start of the dinner that he wanted him to come run Apple Computer. What happened next was a long series of excuses, as Scully told him all the reasons why he wasn’t going to leave Pepsi. Career-wise, it was like jumping from an ocean liner into a fast, little speedboat. It was not the sort of thing anyone did.
But Steve Jobs wouldn’t take no for an answer. He came back with a response that was so brash, so self-assured, it knocked Scully back on his heels. Jobs said to him: “John, what are you doing with your life? Are you going to spend it making colored sugar water, or are you going to come to Apple Computer and change the world?” Scully said, later, that as soon as he heard those words, he knew he would never draw another paycheck from Pepsi. He had received not a job offer that day, but a call.
God’s persistence in calling is a theme taken up by one of my favorite novelists, Wendell Berry, in his book, Jayber Crow. Jayber Crow, of the title, is a young man who does receive, and respond to, a call to ministry. It’s a call, though, that’s not spectacular. Anything but. No burning bush. No thundering voice from the heavens. A call very much like God’s persistent whispering to the boy, Samuel.
Jayber, in the novel, is living in an orphanage. He’s an awkward adolescent, one of those forgotten kids, who just doesn’t seem to fit anywhere. He’s lying awake, one night, in a dorm room that has a simple nameplate on the door: “J. Crow.” That’s how the teachers and staff of the orphanage rather formally addressed the students: first initial, followed by last name.
Jayber is thinking of the boy Samuel, who he’s heard the preacher speak about. He’s thinking of how God called Samuel in the middle of the night. He’s wondering what it would be like, were he to receive such a call as that. Listen, as Jayber tells his own story:
I knew the story of the boy Samuel, how he was called in the night by a voice speaking his name. I could imagine, so clearly that I could almost hear it, a voice calling out of the darkness: “J. Crow.” And then I thought maybe the voice had called, and that I had almost but not quite heard it. One night I got out of bed and went to the window. The sky over the treetops was full of stars. Whispering so as not to waken my roommate, I said, “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.” And then, so help me, I heard the silence that stretched all the way from the ground underneath my window to the farthest stars, and the hair stood up on my head, and a shiver came into me that did not pass away for a long time.
I like that story, because it’s so true to life. More often than not, that’s the way God’s call comes to a person. Quiet, internal — and very persistent.
And so, I charge you to listen. Listen for the call. Listen to that voice within, that may be inviting you to change your life — or simply to go grocery shopping for the old lady across the street. Don’t worry: if it’s work worth doing, no job is too small, and God is surely in it. And whatever happens, remember: God has your back.
Let us pray:
Lord, we confess
how hesitant we are,
when it comes to taking the risk of listening for your call.
We are afraid we may not hear it.
We are even more afraid that we will.
But speak, Lord: for your servant hears.
Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow (New York: Counterpoint, 2000), p. 43.