Alton Parish–Matthew 10:24-34, Jeremiah 20:7-13
When I turned 18, the age of legal adulthood, our country was deeply involved in armed conflict in Vietnam. Now I’m 65, a point where I can no longer plausibly call myself middle-aged, and U.S. forces are regularly deployed overseas and placed in harm’s way. There has hardly been a time between my youth and my old age in which we have not been at war in some way or another. And it has always been controversial. Vietnam certainly was, and our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention Syria and Somalia and other places, has been a source of deep domestic conflict. We would have to look just a few years before I was born to find a war that virtually everybody could get behind as a just cause, unquestionably worthy of the spilt blood of our armed forces.
Indeed, in retrospect, and having recently observed the 73rd anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, the just-ness of our campaign against Adolf Hitler and Nazism seems to increase as time goes by. There is something about a worthy and noble cause that inspires the human spirit to rise to extraordinary levels of commitment and sacrifice. Among those who are bound to that cause, a feeling of closeness and kinship develops. Courageous and eloquent words get written and spoken—think of the moving speeches of Churchill and Roosevelt. People keep their eyes on the prize, and are moved to endure all manner of deprivation and hardship for the sake of that vision.
And it’s not only war, thank God, that can produce this sort of behavior. A political campaign can have the same effect on people. Those involved in the same educational or career path can experience their common calling as a holy mission, a response to a divine vocation.
The notion of being called by God—whether it’s a nation or a church or an individual or whatever—the notion of being God’s chosen instrument for a particular purpose at a particular time—whether it’s saving the world from Hitler, or ridding a schoolyard of drug-traffickers, or teaching a Sunday School class—the idea of vocation or calling stirs us in the deepest recesses of our souls. And as I said, the urge to follow such a calling is compelling, virtually irresistible, even when doing so entails great personal cost. Think of all the people who voluntarily enlisted in the armed forces right after 9-11.
The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah certainly had this experience. Like most young men of his time, he did not grow up with the ambition of being a prophet of the Lord. But the word of the Lord came to him one day, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; before you came to birth I consecrated you: I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah protested that he was too young and inexperienced to take on such important work, but the Lord would not take No for an answer: “Do not say, ‘I am only a child,’ for you must go to all to whom I send you and say whatever I command you.” So Jeremiah had his call, his vocation, his mission from God, and he went about his work with zeal and with enthusiasm.
The original readers of St Matthew’s gospel are certainly also among this number. They were, for the most part, Jewish Christians. They had been brought up to expect a Messiah, a Savior and Deliverer. And they were convinced that they had found this Messiah in Jesus. It is in Matthew’s gospel that we find the vocation, the calling, of these early believers. It is known as the Great Commission, and is now understood as the general marching order for the whole church: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
There comes a time, however, in every war, in every political campaign, in every educational or career path, when the going gets tough. Communication miscues and logistical foul-ups produce battlefield setbacks. Scandals and dirty politics and just plain failure to get your message across convincingly translates into grim news from the opinion pollsters. Educational and career plans are short-circuited by romance or childbirth or just “life” in general.
Jeremiah ended up publicly humiliated, his prophetic words rejected. He was even thrown to the bottom of a well and abandoned there until his friends rescued him several days later. Churches and Christian ministries inevitably run into difficult times, and the temptation is strong to abandon a sense of mission and adopt a survivalist mentality— whatever will “keep the doors open,” maintain the viability of the institution. Maintenance is valued ahead of mission.
Then, just when it seems like things could not possibly get worse, they do. The going gets tougher. The military command and control structure disintegrates, and the battlefield turns to chaos. The polls close, the ballots are counted, and the cause loses, plain and simple. The semester grades arrive, or the annual performance review happens, and what was once a promising career reveals itself to be just a square peg in a round hole.
That must be how Jeremiah felt as his prophetic ministry— a ministry of communicating not-so-good news which irritated just about everybody, including the king—that must be how Jeremiah felt as his prophetic ministry got going. He thought of quitting and finding another career, but he couldn’t. Being a prophet was his vocation, his calling. Listen to his words in the arresting translation of the Revised English Bible: “You have duped me, Lord, and I have been your dupe; you have outwitted me and prevailed. … Whenever I said, ‘I shall not call it to mind or speak in his name again,’ then his word became imprisoned within me like a fire burning in my heart. I was weary with holding it under and could endure no more.”
“You have duped me, Lord.”
How about that?
The Jerusalem Bible says, “You have seduced me.” The annals of church history are littered with the names of individual Christians, and groups of Christians, who could give the very same testimony, those who could say they have been duped and seduced by the Lord into a ministry no one his or her right mind would have chosen.
Perhaps there are some of you who can identify with this experience. Matthew’s Jewish Christians certainly could. They had been brought up as devout Jews, and wanted to remain devout Jews. But the leaders of the Jewish religious establishment did not share their conviction about Jesus being the long-expected Messiah, and made it increasingly difficult for Jewish Christians to remain part of Jewish national and cultural and religious life. By the eighth decade of the first century, it had turned into full-blown persecution. These Christians were suffering ostracism, deprivation, and death at the hands of their own countrymen. But here’s the deal: They believed in their cause. They believed they had a divine vocation. They believed they were on a mission from God. So they counted the cost, and kept the faith. And they found out what the neon sign in front of scores of skid row missions once proclaimed (you don’t see it so much anymore): Jesus saves.
The gospel of Matthew was written for a people tempted to surrender, to give up the cause. In a nutshell, the message is this: “Things look bad, but God knows better. In the end, God wins.” Or, as Matthew records Jesus putting it: “Even the hairs on your head are numbered. Fear not … [E]veryone who acknowledges me before men I will also acknowledge before my father who is in heaven.” In other words, God never abandons those who pursue the mission to which he has called them. There will be moments when it feels as though he has done exactly that. It is uncomfortable and lonely at the bottom of a well. It is uncomfortable in the smoke of battle, especially when it’s evident that you’re on the losing side. It is uncomfortable, for that matter, nailed to a cross. Jesus knows that. He himself cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
But we have both the sign and the seal of his assurance that appearances can deceive, that one battle does not a war make, that we will be rescued from the bottom of the well, that the cross is not the last word. The sign of this promise is found in the words of today’s gospel reading: “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” The seal of this promise is found in the event of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead, which is the reason we are here today, the reason Christians have gathered to celebrate the Eucharist on over ten thousand consecutive Sundays. God never abandons those who pursue the mission to which he has called them.
Staying faithful to mission—not surrendering to discouragement, despair, or dysfunction, not settling merely for survival or maintenance—this is not only a way to stay close to God, it is the only way to stay close to God. And it is certainly ample cause for giving thanks in this celebration of the Eucharist. Amen.