Preaching on God's calling this Sunday

August 16th, 2022

Jeremiah 1:4-10. I love this text dawning just as school is coming back into session! Last I preached on this (view here) we used a child as our Scripture reader – and he was sensational. Something to help people be wary of, and maybe thus even to name, is the way church people trivialize children and youth, delighting in their cuteness, or deciding about some missional activity “Oh, that would be good for our youth” or “How neat our youth go on a mission trip.” And then they can be coolly dismissive of youthful idealism, chuckling over teenage dreams for the church. I at least like to ask our children and youth what they’d want from church, and announce this to the grownups with the caution that we debunk their notions at the risk of losing our souls as followers of Jesus who did say we should become like children. I love it that Pope John Paul II, at his inauguration on October 22, 1978, chose to speak to the youth of the world, telling them “You are the future of the world, you are the hope of the Church, you are my hope.”

But Jeremiah’s call came way before is teenage years. God called him in his mother’s womb – or earlier! A sermon could dwell profitably on how we all came to be in our mother’s womb. Hans Urs von Balthasar spoke of “the terrible accidentalness of sexual causation” – how you came to be in some weird mix of intentionality or the proverbial back seat. The act itself, described unforgettably by geneticist Adam Rutherford: “On contact, that winning sperm released a chemical that dissolved the egg’s reluctant membrane, left its whiplash tail behind, and burrowed in.”

What is God’s calling from, in, even before your arrival in the womb? We think of calling as something you hear, dodge or refuse now as a grownup. But way back then, when you were a microscopic next to nothing, God was already calling you. What if parents, on learning of a pregnancy, instead of the dramatic, showy gender reveal, pondered questions like “What is God calling this new life within to be?” St. Dominic’s mother dreamed, while pregnant, that she gave birth to a dog with a torch in his mouth.

If God is fully present in utero, if God somehow knit us together, if God understands better than we the complex realities of life in the womb and the daunting challenges of the journey ahead, then can we make sense of God’s will, of God’s desire for this fragile, latent person in the making? Is God merely rooting for survival? If mom and dad are already harboring dreams for this child, then how much more will God already be envisioning a holy, faithful life for this disciple-to-be? We think of God’s calling coming to attentive seekers, to young adults or to those in mid-life crisis. But in utero? Isaiah 49:5 teases out the idea that the prophet had been formed in the womb by God “to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him.” Jeremiah countered God’s call by saying “I am only a youth”; but then on further reflection, he began to intuit that God had actually begun calling him from his mother’s womb (Jer. 1:4-10).

A fetus can detect sound at twenty six weeks. Can it hear God? Does God call particular people, or all people, even in their mothers’ wombs? What is calling anyhow? Is the divine call a voice out of nowhere? Isn’t each person’s sense of divine vocation a symphony of voices that call? Messages overheard from mom and dad, attributes and skills fostered in the womb and later, chance encounters, some church chatter and personal musing mixed in there: we process it all and infer God is asking something of us. Frederick Buechner famously wrote that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Fascinating: the world’s deep hunger is out there, waiting for you to be born and notice; and your deep hunger is already there, festooned in your DNA, destined by the parents you happen to have and the place you’ll happen to live. What if mom and dad began, during pregnancy, to ponder that this unseen child is already being called by God? And what if you and I reminisce a bit and puzzle over what we probably missed back then, and since – that God was calling us, even in utero?

After all, the infant, in utero, is already worshipping. I’ve handed the Eucharistic bread to many a pregnant woman and wanted to say “The Body of Christ, given for y’all.” As a teenager, Jeremiah engaged in the usual ducking and weaving, dodging God’s longstanding call. Like Moses (can’t speak), Isaiah (not holy enough), Jonah (the Assyrians are unworthy) or Mary (I’ve never slept with a man), Jeremiah is too young. He may just be chicken, as God’s call is for him to upset the status quo, questioning the politics of his day.

God’s call here is a famous “chiasm” – the crossing, a downright crucifix of language: “to pluck up, to break down, to build, to plant.” See the criss-cross? We’d rather God just build and plant without the plucking up and breaking down! Marianne Williamson memorably said that when we invite God into our lives, we expect a decorator to appear to spruce up the place a little. But instead, you look out the window, and there’s a wrecking ball about to tear it all down and start over. 

Available from MinistryMatters

Hebrews 12:18-29 would be tough for me to preach, requiring too much mansplaining… The author wishes that worshippers wouldn’t feel so much terror, so much trembling – but aren’t we too familiar and cozy, even a little picky in worship, in need of a little mystery and trembling? Some of what he is called “reverence and awe”?

Luke 13:10-17. The woman is sometimes misunderstood as being unwelcome due to gender, or for ritual impurity – but as Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington remind us, this is one more instance of anti-Semitic reading. Women were welcome. The crippled bore no ritual impurity. We could though ask if her physical disability – 18 years of, what, osteoporosis? severe curvature of the spine? worked then as it does in our world. Is the church finally waking up to issues of disability, which really is a social construct? Can we welcome all people? Can we not even in welcoming disenfranchise or stigmatize the so-called physically disabled?

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