Scripture readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10, Luke 13:10-17
If you’ve hung around the church, chances are good you’ve heard the word “vocation” a time or two. A dictionary definition tells us that a “vocation” is “a summons or strong inclination to a particular state or course of action,” but it could also be, simply, “the work in which a person is employed.”[i] So it’s not surprising that we often confuse “career” with “vocation,” and certainly some people do pursue vocations as they undertake a career path. Ministers, for example, are understood to have a vocation for church ministry. We say that they have a “call,” recognizing the linguistic connection between the word “vocation” and the word “voice.” As Parker J. Palmer puts it, “Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear.”[ii] What we do is our “vocation” when we have heard God’s “call” and have answered it.
Of course, we live in a time with many voices constantly clamoring for air-time in our lives. Amidst all these voices, it is often difficult to hear God’s voice calling. Often we mistake the loudest and harshest voices for God’s. Last week, Lucas, Keith and I made the acquaintance of a bright-spirited, 20-something mother of three children. We’ll call her Lisa. As our kids chased each other around a playground, we began exchanging stories. Noting our proximity to EOU, I asked her, “Are you a student?” Lisa laughed. “Me? No!” Then she shrugged. “I never graduated from high school,” she said. “When they tell you too many times that you’re stupid and you’ll never graduate, it doesn’t seem worth the trouble.”
Now, I don’t know if Lisa ever longed for more educational opportunities, and certainly homemaking can be an honorable vocation. But what disturbs me, is how these harsh words somebody had said, perhaps repeatedly, had become a defining voice in Lisa’s life. And if there’s one thing I know, those harsh words in her ear were not the voice of God. The God who creates each one of us in the divine image does not tell us that we are stupid. Misguided, sometimes, but not stupid. But does Lisa know that?
And then I began to wonder, what about the rest of us? How many of us have distorted voices ringing so loudly in our ears that we are unable to distinguish God’s voice in their midst? And how do we learn to tune out the noise keeping us bound up in distractions, and focus on the clear call of God in our lives?
Our scriptures this morning offer us some “voice lessons.” We meet two characters, in radically different situations, who hear the voice of God calling. In both stories, there are also other voices in the air, voices which strive to out-shout the callings which have been heard. Sometimes those voices are internal, and sometimes they come from without. Yet, somehow, both Jeremiah and the bent-over woman are able to distinguish God’s voice from the rest, and both find their own voices in answering God’s call. What are the characteristics which distinguish God’s voice calling us from the other voices clamoring for attention?
1. First, God calls with the voice of someone who knows us. God sees us clearly, the gifts we have to offer, the wounds which we are still nursing, the limitations upon what we can do in our own power. Though God may invite us to something which draws upon every resource we can muster, the call in God’s voice is not that of a moralistic taskmaster, demanding we become someone we are not yet and could never become.[iii] When God calls us, God knows who God is calling.
Take Jeremiah’s story. When Jeremiah is a teenager, God calls him to a daunting task: prophet to the nations. Difficult work in the best of times, to be God’s prophet in the last days of Israel’s kings, prior to the Babylonian exile, does not look like a promising career path. The work of a prophet is to speak truth to power, and when that power is in the process of crumbling, it has little desire to hear God’s truth! But Jeremiah’s vocation is not a career path, consciously chosen and managed. It is a lifelong response to a call voiced by one who knows us better than even our parents. God tells Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born I consecrated you.”
When Jeremiah responds, you have to wonder if he’s speaking words he’s internalized from other voices in his life: “But I don’t know how to speak, God; after all, I’m only a boy!” How many youth in our time have heard the voice of someone older, purporting to be wiser, saying, “What can you know? You have no life experience!” Of course, our oldest people are often told something similar by a culture which idolizes “new” and “improved”: “What can you know? Your time has already passed!” And this brings us to the second lesson in Jeremiah’s story:
2. The call in God’s voice renders our inadequacy irrelevant. We hear this in God’s response to Jeremiah: “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.” When we act upon a God’s call, we do not act upon our own strength. God promises to be with us. And God’s power is more than enough to accomplish what God intends. If we are to speak God’s word, than God will put those words in our mouths! As someone has said, “God doesn’t call the equipped; God equips the called.” When we show up in faith to answer God’s call, all our inadequacies intact, we are amazed at what God can accomplish through us!
3. The third “voice lesson” from our texts today is that the call in God’s voice can come at any time or situation in our lives. It is never too early or too late. We are never too far gone.
Now we’ve already seen Jeremiah called as a young person. But in our gospel reading, we also see God calling a person no one would ever expect, in a surprising situation. The setting is the Sabbath day at a synagogue. Jesus is teaching, and a woman appears. What we know about her is that she has been crippled by a “spirit,” such that her body is bent fully in half, and she cannot stand up straight. What “spirit” could do that? We could make all kinds of speculations: depression, abuse, lack of self-esteem, the voices of a culture which doesn’t value women, or perhaps an addiction. We don’t know. We just know that a spiritual ailment has taken physical form, for a long time. Eighteen long years, Jesus says. Now, this woman does not seem to have shown up at this synagogue on the Sabbath hoping to receive healing from this famed miracle-worker. It just seems to be her normal habit.
Then the text says, “When Jesus saw her, he called her over.” Doesn’t it seem strange that he calls her to come to him, after we’ve heard her condition? Don’t you think he would come to her? [iv] Well, I think the point is that, when God in Jesus Christ calls her, she responds. She responds just as she is, from her long years of spiritual distortion, with all her limitations out there for everyone to see. She wasn’t expecting the call—why would anyone call her forward?—but she responds anyway. Which brings us to the fourth and final voice lesson today:
4. The call in God’s voice summons us to freedom. Now I know that idea is contrary to many expectations of “call”! Sometimes we might think that obedience to God’s call binds us to an onerous duty which will restrict us in some way. Certainly, responding to God’s call may limit our choices—and we are accustomed, in our consumer culture, to thinking of “freedom” as “unlimited choice.”[v] But I’d like to suggest instead that true freedom is not unlimited choice, but the alignment of our lives with God’s desire for us. After all, the God who created us desires our wholeness. The God we know in Jesus Christ walks with us in brokenness and suffering, entering our pain so that we can find a way through. The God we know in the Holy Spirit inspires us so that we may participate as partners in God’s ongoing creative purposes. To respond to God’s call is to find a freedom we’ve never known before, in that place where, Frederick Beuchner famously wrote, “our deep gladness and the world’s great hunger” meet. [vi] Voices that bind us, that tie us to impossible “shoulds” and “oughts,” that go against our deepest longings for freedom: they are not God’s voice.
When the bent-over woman responds to Jesus’ voice calling her, what happens? He says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” and after he lays hands on her, she stands up straight and begins praising God. That language of being “set free”—rather than language of being “healed”—is quite deliberate in this story. She is set free and empowered by Jesus to do the exact thing that we have been told she has been unable to do and has yearned to do. [vii]
The controversy which follows, in which Jesus confronts an indignant religious leader with the true meaning of Sabbath, serves to underscore this vital point: God created us for freedom. In freedom we can spiritually “stand up straight,” no matter what our physical condition, and grow into the fullness of the true humanity seen in Jesus Christ.
Did you hear what happens when that formerly-bent-over-woman stands up straight? In her new freedom, she finds her voice, proclaiming God’s glory to anyone who will listen. She becomes a minister of the Word of God, sharing the good news of salvation.
The Westminster Catechism, a central confession of our Reformed faith, begins with this question: What is the chief end of [humanity]? Answer: [Humanity’s] chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy [God] forever.[viii] How is God calling you, inviting you into words and acts in which you can give glory? What have you longed to do but felt unable to do—until you heard God’s voice, clearly this time, calling you to stand up and do it? How is God calling you to enjoy—enjoy—God’s presence in your life, transforming you so that you may stand straight as the human being you were created to be?
There are so many voices out there, but only one is the voice of God the One who knows you, loves you, and longs for your freedom. Listen. Listen. And then answer. Do not be afraid.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
[ii] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000, 5.
[iii] Ibid, 11.
[v] I’m indebted to Dr. Cynthia Rigby’s writings on God’s Sovereignty and Human Freedom for many of the ideas about vocation mentioned here.
[vi] Frederick Beuchner, Wishful Thinking.
[vii] Alyce M. Mackenzie, same as above.
[viii] I’ve taken the liberty of making this language gender-inclusive.