Jeremiah complained, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord replied, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 1:7-8) The Lord was true to his promise, but it wasn’t easy. Jeremiah was a country boy. He was shy and retiring and self-conscious. His ministry would be marked by mental anguish and disappointment, terrible suffering and apparent failure. There was little to suggest that he would be counted among the greatest of the prophets. No wonder he demurred at the outset, saying, “Lord…I am only a boy.”
But God is God, and we are created in God’s image. As Jeremiah recalled the touch of God’s hand upon his mouth, and that improbable summons to bear witness before nations and kingdoms, and as he ventured forth, equipped only with his gifts of faith and humility, so you and I are called—again and again—to attend to God’s summons and to offer whatever gifts we have in service to God, and one another, and to the world at large.
As I’m sure most of you know, we’ve just elected a fine priest, Shannon Johnston, to become Bishop Coadjutor of Virginia and to succeed Bishop Peter Lee when he retires. Some of you perhaps attended the meeting at St. Stephen’s where the five nominees spoke and answered questions. All were well-qualified, of course, but I was also struck by their humanness—probably because I am so aware of my own. Some seemed a bit more self-assured; others more down-to-earth. But I guarantee you all of them were nervous! And I suspect each one, in some way, was saying deep inside, “Lord, I’m only a human being.” Or, “If they only knew my faults!”
Have you ever been there? Ever felt, maybe suddenly, that you were “over your head”? I remember vividly being struck with that feeling as I arrived with my wife Joannie and our two small children at the rectory of St. Matthew’s Church, in Ontario, Oregon, our first parish. Ontario is a little cow town on the Snake River, in the desert, about 60 miles from Boise, Idaho. My being called there is living proof of God’s sense of humor! I was brought up a city-slicker in a small New York apartment; Joannie grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs. The cowboy West was a totally new experience, and I took a lot of ribbing as I tried to “talk the talk” and “walk the walk” with cattlemen and farmers and their families in that dusty little town!
But I had a great a bishop—Lane W. Barton—and God used him to shake the same kind of sense into me that God did with Jeremiah. Bishop Barton was huge: tall, powerfully-built, with the deepest voice of any man I’ve ever known. Although he had been brought up in a city in Ohio, he had adapted himself totally to the ranch country. His usual garb, except in church, was gray slacks and a lumber jacket, with an enormous curved-stem pipe dangling from his mouth. When I felt over my head I’d call him up on the phone—he was 260 miles away. And he’d say in his deep voice, “Oh, Doug, you can do it! Just give your troubles to me, and I’ll go to sleep!”
All of us are called to offer the gifts God has given us, just as Randy said last Sunday. And like Jeremiah, we tend so to underestimate God’s love for us, and God’s incredible capacity to build on our gifts—and even to “multiply” our gifts—to satisfy the challenges before us. Jesus was always doing that with people. To a bunch of fishermen by the lake, he’d say, Com’on, guys, I’m going to show you how to ”fish” for people! Or to provide food enough for a crowd of 5,000, he started with a little boy who was willing to share his lunch! To a crooked tax collector sitting up in a tree, he shouted, Come on down, Zacchaeus, I’m coming to your house!
A Georgia man named Max Cleland was traveling north on I-95 to accept a job in Washington. But the farther he drove, the more desperate and depleted he felt inside. In Viet Nam a grenade had exploded and blown off both his legs, a hand and a forearm, and slashed open his windpipe. After hours of surgery, 41 pints of blood and excruciating pain he was flown back to the states for further treatment, and sent home. He would be profoundly impaired for the rest of his life. About 80 miles south of Richmond, all the anger and self-pity overwhelmed him. Why me, God? Why me?
But then he came to himself. And he repented—deeply. And everything changed. “Though I had ignored him, God continued to love me,” he said. “He came to me—right here on Interstate 95.” Max Cleland arrived in Washington a new man. He went on to become head of the Veterans’ Administration, and later a U.S. Senator from Georgia. He had a heart of compassion for others. And he wrote a moving book: “Strong at the Broken Places.” That’s what God did for him—and does for us. The Christ who was broken for us comes along side us in our own brokenness, our sins, our shortcomings, our youth, our immaturity—and says, as God did to Jeremiah, “Do not be afraid…for I am with you to deliver you.”