“What Are You Afraid Of?”

August 28, 2016

 

Jeremiah 1:4-10

 

5,700 new students began classes at the University of Iowa this past Monday. That’s a lot of freshmen! I’m told it’s some 400 more than last year’s entering class.

They’re still finding their way around. One student told The Daily Iowan that she was feeling a little hesitant walking around campus. With the new buildings and the ongoing construction, and sidewalks and roads torn up all over the place, getting around is a somewhat daunting task. I even had to stop and get my bearings when a bewildered and slightly anxious student came up to me on Tuesday and asked: “Where is the Bio Building East?”

I hope my directions helped.

Step outside our doors and look around—thousands of students away from their families and home towns, many of them from out of state, and still many others in a new country. If you are a freshman or a new graduate student feeling a little overwhelmed and exhausted after your first week, take a deep breath and just relax in your pew for a few minutes—it’s not always this hard. And we hope that you will make this your church home while you are here and that you will find this a place of rest and renewal, as so many others have in years past.

The opening convocation last Sunday featured a speaker from Illinois, a freshman who gave voice to what so many were feeling: “I’m scared.”

That’s a common emotion at the beginning of any significant undertaking.

It always has been.

This morning we heard Jeremiah’s response to the call of God: “Ah, Lord God. Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

Now, when those specific words, “Ah, Lord God” appear in scripture, they usually mark the beginning of a prayer or a complaint to God. It’s the way that the prophet Ezekiel talks. And Jeremiah repeats those words several times and he grouses to God throughout his time as a prophet.

Like so many others, Jeremiah is afraid. “Ah, Lord God, I don’t know how to speak.” When God speaks from the burning bush and calls Moses to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt, Moses replies: “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent…O my Lord, please send someone else.” And when God calls Isaiah, he can only protest: “Woe is me. I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”

Certainly we can understand such complaints and such hesitation. Would any reasonable person respond differently?

Patrick Miller, who taught Old Testament at Princeton Seminary, reflected on God’s call to the prophets: “The task was a large one, and any sensible person might well resist, both for fear of being unable to fulfill the calling and for fear of the consequences if one did.”

Failure or success—contemplating either leads to fear.

Maybe that’s what’s going on in the hearts and minds of all those new students.

What if I’m just not up to it? What if I find my way to the Bio Building East and don’t understand a word as I sit in the lecture hall. What if I fail and have to go home in shame?

Or—

What if I am up to it? What if I go to the head of the class—or even the top quarter? What if I succeed? What new and greater challenges will I then face? What will my friends say?

As the song says and I have thought more than once over the years: “I should have stayed back home in Illinois.”

I hope that about now those of you who aren’t students are beginning to realize that those students aren’t the only ones who are frightened. Those students aren’t the only ones who fear failure. They aren’t the only ones who fear success.

My guess is that somewhere you do as well.

I know I do.

Being rejected or being accepted. That first “F” on a test—or that first “A.” Losing a job or getting a promotion. The patient who dies in spite of all you did or the patient who recovers because of what you did. The performance that is met with silence—or the one that is met with thunderous applause. The relationship that comes to an end—or the relationship that is moving toward greater commitment. All such experiences can lead to fear and trembling.

Who are we when we fail?

Who are we when we succeed?

Both failure and success can be frightening because both force us to look at ourselves and our lives in new and often unexpected ways.

We can’t wish such fear away. We can’t will such fear away.

Here’s the good news: there is no promise that any of this will be easy. There is no guarantee that all will approve. There is no assurance that the way ahead will be smooth.

Yes, that’s the good news.

This is the truth of the Gospel that we discover in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

In faith, we do not blithely say that everything will be all right—for we know the conflicts that Jesus had with other people, the way that so many regarded him with suspicion, the way many turned away from what he offered. We know the betrayal and the denial of his closest followers. And one of our central acts of worship is to remember his body broken for the world.

At the same time, neither do we say that nothing will be all right—for we also know and celebrate the resurrection and find ourselves alive in the power of the resurrection. That power gives us the freedom at each moment to choose the way of love, to choose the way of compassion, to choose the way of justice and mercy. And in making such choices we become co-creators with God. We make this world that much more like God’s vision for it.

So Paul tells the Philippian Christians and tells us: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling”—and, yes, that can cause us some consternation. But we also believe that, as Paul reminds us, “it is God who is at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”

We each have our own calling, our own work to do. Together as a congregation we have our larger work as well. And in all of our work, God is seeking to do a greater work of love.

We come together to remember that God is at work in us.

We go out to do the work that God is working through us.

The power of the resurrection takes us into the suffering of the world. Certainly we would not enter such places on our own. On our own we would seek our comfort and disregard the hurting world. Left to ourselves we do seek simply our own comfort in the midst of a broken world. Knowing Christ as the Risen One gives us not just the courage but the ability to enter the places of suffering to offer the healing, the peace, the wholeness that God seeks for all creation.

Our faith and our lives tell us: crucifixion and resurrection are connected.

We know failure and success and do not need to fear either.

And we are helped in all of this by those stories of the call of God—in particular, the story of God’s call of Jeremiah.

I know. Here he goes again with the religious talk.

You’re thinking: Prophets are called. “Bible people” are called. Maybe even ministers are called. But do those stories of the call of God have anything to do with most of us today?

Yes, they do. You are called.

Oh, I admit it. These days it is usually only clergy who have to give some account of their calling. Even in the church, no one ever asks: Are you called to be a trustee? Are you called to sing in the choir? Are you called to teach Sunday school? No, in such cases, we usually ask: “Are you breathing?”

But at some point along the way to ordination—and sometimes when seeking a position in a church—candidates for ordination and ministers find themselves sitting in front of a group of people who say: “Tell us about your call.”

Just what makes you so special?

What give you the right to talk?

Why should we listen to what you say?

Of course, all those stories are different, but those who tell them usually begin by saying something like, “Well, there certainly wasn’t a flash of lightening or a voice from heaven or anything like that.” Which is good, because I think that if such claims were made, most of those listening would want to end the discussion as soon as possible.

After it’s been established that there is nothing spooky about this “call,” the story continues in relating a sudden or slowly growing awareness that somehow this strange job is what we needed to do, the only thing we could really consider doing, the only thing that made sense.

It is who we are.

Maybe we were, as Lady Gaga said so long ago, “born this way.”

That after all was the understanding of Jeremiah, who senses God saying: “Before you were born, I consecrated you.” And maybe you remember that we heard earlier this summer a similar understanding on the part of Paul, who writes to the Galatians that God had set him aside before he was born and called him through God’s grace.

Such language is no part of a discussion about when life begins.

It is the language of call.

And, as I said, you are called. Yes, you.

I would guess that your call did not come with flashes of lightening or peals of thunder of voices from heaven either.

But I would dare say that it is just as real and just as strong as any other call.

Your call is the stirring that says: “For this I was created. This is my task. For this I am here in this place in these days.” Your call may be to heal, to create, to nurture. Your call may be to teach or to study. It may have everything to do with you employment—or nothing at all. Your call is not necessarily permanent and unchanging—but it is what you most need to do now and what most needs to be done.

For some the call is to tear down— to demolish buildings so that something new can rise up; to tear down the walls of suspicion between people; to tear down the barriers of injustice. For some the call will be to pluck up—to gather the crops that have been tended with care in order to feed people; to pluck up the weeds of hatred.

Others will sense a call to build up beauty or health, a call to plant seeds of hope.

And yes, as soon as a call comes, doubts arise.

            I’m too young for this.

            I’m too old for this.

            What if I fail?

            What if I succeed?

That’s OK.

Listen to your calling.

Listen for your calling.

While it might cause some doubts and misgivings, your calling is also the way through those very same doubts and misgivings. It comes from the God who is with us in failure and success, from the God who is greater than all our failures and successes.

Let’s be honest—we’re all still listening. We’re all still finding our way around. We need to stop every now and then to get directions from someone—and maybe help point out the way for someone else.

It can be scary. But God is at work within you, calling you.

As I said, there are 400 more souls here in Iowa City this year than last year. If you’ve been downtown during the week—and especially around 20 after the hour—this will come as no surprise to you.

If you are walking you will find yourself carried along by the sheer youthful force of all of them together.

If you are driving, you will want to honk at them as the weave in and out of traffic on bikes and skateboards.

If you are in a hurry, you will want to avoid them.

Instead: be kind. Smile. Welcome them, even as you were once welcomed when you came here as a stranger with fear and trembling.

All these people, the new and the returning, the young and the old, all of them are here because like you they have been called to this place. They have been called to study, to write, to make music and art, to explore, to discover, and with all of us to live joyfully and faithfully before the God of life.