I'd Rather Not
Text: Jeremiah 1:4-10
Pastors and Seminary students are often asked to share their call to ministry story. Believing that God has laid a claim on all our lives, I like to turn the question around. When asked to share my call story, I usually say, “I will be happy to do so, but first, tell me about your call story.”
Most often, the response I get sounds often something like this: “Who me? I could never be a “minister/a church musician/a youth pastor/a Seminary professor’.” “You do not need to,” I will say, “You have already responded to God’s call by serving God as a lawyer, a student, a nurse, an administrator, a painter, a writer, a ruling elder, a choir member, a social worker, a parent, an accountant, a Habitat volunteer, a Reading Buddy, an advocate for racial justice.”
A consistent theme in Scripture is that God calls every one of us. The first ten verses of the Book of Jeremiah tell of his call to be God’s prophet. If asked, Jeremiah might well argue that he was not called into ministry; he was conscripted. He was no anxious volunteer. Early on, the reluctant prophet wants to know why God would call an inexperienced boy and untrained public speaker to announce God’s prophetic word. As Jeremiah looks back on that unenviable and yet unmistakable prenatal call to be a mouthpiece for God, he says, in effect, “Thanks God, but I’d rather not.”
In Charles Dickens’, A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is an old miser who hears the call of God through the haunting voice of his long deceased, business partner, Jacob Marley. Early in the story, we hear a loud clanging of chains on the stairway. Then, we see Marley’s ghost arrive in Scrooge’s bedchamber to recount his own miserable life of greed and self-promotion. Rattling the chains he wears in death, Marley urges Scrooge to break open his stone, cold heart lest he endure a similar miserable fate.
Marley speaks: "At this time of the rolling year, I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode?! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?!"
Scrooge was very much dismayed to hear Marley going on at this rate, and
began to quake exceedingly.
"Hear me!" cried the Ghost. "My time is nearly gone."
"I will," said Scrooge. "But don't be hard upon me! Don't be flowery, Jacob! Pray!"
"I am here tonight to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer."
"You will be haunted by Three Spirits."
Scrooge's countenance fell almost as low as the Ghost's had done.
"I -- I think I'd rather not," said Scrooge.
"Without their visits," said the Ghost, "you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first tomorrow, when the bell tolls one."
Compared to Jeremiah, Scrooge had it easy. God calls young Jeremiah to speak harsh words of judgment to people twice his age, people whose hearts are as hard as the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge. Is it any surprise, then, that like Scrooge, Jeremiah responds to God’s call, saying, “I – I think I’d rather not”?
Over the years, I have met many folks with good cause to balk at the call of God, to say, “I’d rather not.” For much of church history and for many churches still today, one such group is women. I can certainly understand women who respond: “I’d rather not pay attention to your call, God, because I am a woman and the church has told me to keep in my place and that place does not include the pulpit, font, and table.”
Martin Copenhaver tells this story of his grandmother who became one of the earliest UCC pastors. “My grandmother was 14 years old,” writes Martin, “and living on a farm in Michigan when she made an appointment with her Presbyterian minister to tell him that she felt called to the ministry.” The Presbyterian minister responded to Emma’s unassailable sense of call by saying, “’I’m sorry Emma. You must be mistaken. God doesn’t call women into the ministry’.”
For much of the church’s history and sadly, still in the Presbyterian Church USA today, another group with sound reason to balk at the call of God, to say, “I’d rather not,” is the L,G, B,T,Q community. I can certainly understand gay friends who respond to God’s call, “I’d rather not pay attention to your call, God, because I am gay and the church has told me that I can sit in the pew if I must, but I have no business in the pulpit, at the font or at the table.”
Sometimes our “I’d rather not” response to God has less to do with discrimination than with our own sense of inadequacy. God you could not possibly be calling to serve you: “I am not smart enough.” “I don’t have enough education.” “I don’t have sufficient experience.” “I have too many doubts, God.” “I don’t have the patience, the tenacity, the creativity, the . . .”
All of these “I’d rather not” responses sound reasonable until you arrive at verses 7 & 8 of the first chapter of Jeremiah. In these verses, God tells Jeremiah that he is never in this call alone and that God will speak through Jeremiah despite his protestations and perceived inadequacies. The question for Jeremiah, for you, for me, is less “Am I up to the task, to the call of God on my life, whatever the call?” and more “Is God up to the task of using you, using me, to help establish God’s in-breaking reign in this troubled and troubling world?”
Common to every call story in Scripture, including Jeremiah’s, is that God equips those whom God calls to live out their vocation whether it is a dry dock shipbuilder like Noah, a devoted daughter-in-law like Ruth, whether it is a young, runt of a shepherd-king like David, or whether it is a nobody virgin like Mary. Martin’s grandmother, Emma, knew her Bible better than the Presbyterian pastor she consulted and so she never doubted her call from God or doubted that God equips those whom God calls.
Given the seriousness of what God calls us to say and do, it is only natural to first respond by saying, “I’d rather not” or by asking ourselves, “How can we?” How can we respond to God’s call to speak a word of comfort to a father whose heart has just been ripped out with the news of the car crash? How can we respond to God’s call to stand up to legislators who try to outdo each other in demeaning and making miserable the lives of immigrants in our land? How can we respond to God’s call to speak of reconciliation to family members or nations that lay out 1,000 different reasons why reconciliation is not possible? A simple answer: By ourselves, we cannot. But as Jeremiah learned at any early age, with God, all things are possible.
Looking back on my own call to pastoral ministry, I have traveled a relatively easy road. At times, I have spoken out against racism, but from the safe confines of wearing white skin. I have spoken out against heterosexism, but from the safe confines of being straight. I have spoken out against blocking women’s leadership in the church, but from the safe confines of being male. I have spoken out against the death penalty, but from the safe confines of someone who has not lost a loved one to a cold-blooded murder.
To this date, I have never been thrown down a cistern like Jeremiah or been told that I would be better off serving a church of my own kind or told that I am morally unfit to serve as leader of any church because of my sexuality or told that it would be best if I kept silent in church because of my gender. I have, though, had my call refined by the courage of those like Jeremiah and Martin’s grandmother, Emma, who did not go out looking for a call and when hearing it did not rush to enlist, but who finally accepted God’s claim on their lives, whatever that claim, who reminded me that God is able to speak redemptive, reconciling, and life-transforming truth even through you and me.
Mostly, though, I have been inspired to live into my call from God by people just like you, people who rise above the instinct to say, “I’d rather not” and even, if reluctant, learn to respond with the words of another young prophet and a very young woman. When asked to respond to God’s call on his life, Isaiah, does not respond, “I’d rather not” even if he might have felt that way. When Mary hears the call of God on her life, she does not respond, “I’d rather not,” but sings, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
In this 250th anniversary year, God is still calling to Cove. How will this congregation respond to God’s call to be agents of mercy, ambassadors of peace, announcers of good news? God is also calling to each person here today? How will we respond to God’s call, God’s claim on our lives?
My prayer for us all is that even if we feel like Jeremiah that we will have the courage of Mary and the readiness of Isaiah to say, “God, here I am, send me.”