Jeremiah 1:4-10, Luke 13:10-17
August 25, 2019
Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff
During my second year in Divinity School, I had an internship with the Massachusetts chapter of CURE, Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, a national organization that lobbies for prison reform. The previous year, I interned in a prison chaplaincy program and had learned a lot of disturbing things about sentencing and incarceration in this country. I was passionate about the need to improve prisons so the working with CURE seemed to be logical next step.
My boss was a Dominican nun named Dot. I had never met a Catholic nun like her—she wore jeans overalls and lived in an apartment in my neighborhood with another Catholic sister. Sister Dot had been a high school art teacher for many years. Messy and expressive and easily sidetracked, she fulfilled many of my stereotypes about artists. After retiring from teaching, she went to lead Massachusetts CURE, but to help pay the bills, she also worked a “Color Me Beautiful” consultant. Do any of you remember “Color Me Beautiful”? It was a system for figuring out what color clothing a person should wear that grouped people into four seasonal types, each with its own sets of preferred colors.
Sister Dot was a true believer in this system. She told me at my first supervision meeting with her, “If you’d like to stay a bit late one day, I could drape you.” I wasn’t really sure what this meant—for all I knew, it was something Catholics did—but I eventually found out that this was the process by which she would diagnose which season I was. As it turned out, draping was unnecessary. One time, I was sitting in supervision running through my work from the previous week when she suddenly interrupted. “Stop right there,” she said. “I can’t listen to another word. That sweater is a terrible color for you. Give it to me right now. You are a fall for goodness sake, NOT a spring!”
Sister Dot was not the most likely candidate to lead a statewide lobbying group, and she admitted as such. She had spent a fair amount of time in prisons and had a very open heart to prisoners and their families. She was passionate and compassionate, but she wasn’t particularly organized or strategic. To her great credit, she knew her limitations. And yet, she believed that her work with CURE was something God had called her to do. She was convinced of this, not because the job was a good fit for her gifts and aptitudes, not because she was the best person for the job, but because the job was important, that it needed to be done, and she was there to do it.
I didn’t learn a great deal about lobbying that year, but I did learn a LOT about my previously unexamined beliefs about call. You see, I thought that the way you figured out what you should do with your life, the way you discerned your call, was by figuring out what you were good at doing. I had taken any number of aptitude tests in school, tests that were designed to identify our strengths and then match those strengths to a series of possible jobs. If you were good with numbers, you were supposed to be an accountant. If you were good with children, you were supposed to work in a daycare. I understood “call” in the same way. God gave each person gifts. Our call was to use those gifts to do God’s work in the world. Pretty straightforward, right? So, when I encountered someone who really believed she was called to do something she wasn’t particularly expert at, it kind of shook me up.
Sister Dot is hardly the only one with this experience. If you read the Bible, you'll discover that just about everyone who gets a call from God feels like there must be someone else better suited for the job. And here’s the thing: they aren’t speaking out of false modesty. They are being honest with God about their limitations and God doesn’t disagree.
Consider Moses, for example. Moses tells God that he can’t be the right choice to challenge Pharoah to free the enslaved Israelites because he has a speech impediment. God responds by promising that he’ll send Aaron along to help him communicate. Notice that God doesn’t fix Moses speech problem. Nor does God argue with Moses saying, “Oh no, your speech really isn’t all that bad.” God calls Moses even though Moses won’t perform the task perfectly.
Jeremiah argues God out of calling him to be a prophet. What’s his excuse? He’s too young. God has such a heavy, serious message for him to deliver to the nation of Israel. Shouldn’t God send someone with more innate authority, someone with a bit more gravitas, someone with a long gray beard and big, shaggy eyebrows? Jeremiah is sure he is exactly the wrong person for the job, but God calls him anyways. And that story is repeated again and again in the Bible. God’s call is not a reward for a high score on an aptitude test. God’s call will ALWAYS mean facing into our inadequacy--and trusting that God can and will use whatever we have to offer.
Emmanuel Baptist Church, may I be bold and suggest that your call from God follows this highly recognizable pattern?
There's a statement that often appears in your bulletin and is on your website that says you come together not only to celebrate, struggle and serve, but also to tell the Good News of God's love in the Capital District and around the world. Really?? Isn't that biting off a bit more than you can chew? I'm not sure how many members you officially have but unless I'm mistaken this is a congregation of around 70 or 80 people. On any given summer Sunday, there are about 40 or 50 people in worship. And this isn't 40 or 50 people who have a lot of time on their hands. Unless I'm missing something, this congregation doesn't seem to be composed of millionaires. And to complicate matters further, you don't all speak the same native language or come from the same culture.
And then there's this building--it needs work, Emmanuel, so much so that it could easily consume all of your financial and emotional resources. The sound system is touchy and the organ occasionally conks out in the middle of a hymn. And then there's your denominational affiliation--here in the Northeast, just about everyone assumes that Baptists are fundamentalists. All summer, I've had to explain to people who've asked me where I'm working that you're "not that kind of Baptist". I don't mean to be rude, but let's face it: you have issues.
And yet, it is completely clear to me that you are perfectly suited to tell the news of God's love in the Capital District and around the world. In fact, I can't think of any group of people better suited to that task. You simply cannot pretend to have it all together. So there's room for the rest of us to fit in between the cracks. You can't do everything and so there's room for me to step in and offer my own talents or ideas. You haven't worked out all your differences and so there's room for me to be different and still be okay. These aren't just features of being a small urban church--they are ways to tell the Good News of God's love. They are ways to embody the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Friends, I know that there are a lot of times when it just feels like too much. I know there are times when you wonder how to keep this place running given limited time, money, energy of the congregation. I know that struggle not just because I've gotten to know you, but because that is my personal struggle as well. But as your neighbor, as a citizen of the Capital District and the world, let me just say, please keep it going. We need you in this city, in this world because we desperately need imperfect people and imperfect buildings and imperfect groups to proclaim God's perfect love.