(Originally preached at Alger First UMC, 1/31/2016)
4 The Lord’s word came to me:
5 “Before I created you in the womb I knew you;
before you were born I set you apart;
I made you a prophet to the nations.”
6 “Ah, Lord God,” I said, “I don’t know how to speak
because I’m only a child.”
7 The Lord responded,
“Don’t say, ‘I’m only a child.’
Where I send you, you must go;
what I tell you, you must say.
8 Don’t be afraid of them,
because I’m with you to rescue you,”
declares the Lord.
9 Then the Lord stretched out his hand,
touched my mouth, and said to me,
“I’m putting my words in your mouth.
10 This very day I appoint you over nations and empires,
to dig up and pull down,
to destroy and demolish,
to build and plant.” (Jeremiah 1:4-10, CEB)
When you hang out with pastors and other ministry people all the time, conversation inevitably turns to our call stories, how and where we felt God calling us to ministry. For a lot of pastors and other ministry professionals, this Scripture from Jeremiah is their call Scripture. It’s the call story of Jeremiah the prophet, so that makes sense. And a lot of people have claimed call stories that sound similar to this.
Now my call to ministry wasn’t as clear as how Jeremiah’s is presented here. I’ve never heard any kind of divine voice from heaven. But I could imagine Jeremiah experiencing some of the same things as I did when God called me to ministry: fear, anxiety, awe that the God of the universe had a calling for me.
You see, it’s a scary thing when you catch a whiff of God’s dream for your life and you realize that it’s so much bigger than any dream you’ve ever had.
Maybe you’ve experienced the same kind of thing. Maybe you’ve felt called to go on a mission trip to some foreign country, and you’d never left the country before. Maybe you’ve felt called to give more money to missions or to some ministry or charity than you thought you could. Maybe you’ve felt called to begin working with a ministry of this church or somewhere else, with people you don’t spend much time around.
Maybe you’ve caught a whiff of God’s dream for you or a specific thing God wanted you to do and your response was the same as Jeremiah’s-you can’t be expecting me to do that!
Who remembers the question I’ve been asking you for the last couple of weeks? What next? What does God have for Alger First UMC to do next? We just celebrated 100 years of ministry in this building, we’ve passed this great milestone, and now we look forward. What is the next step God would have this church take?
When we ask these kinds of questions, something important happens. We begin to let go of our own small dreams and lean into God’s expansive dreams for us. Some of you have experienced doing just that in your own lives, and it’s amazing, but it’s also not so fun sometimes. There might be huge changes, we might be called to do something uncomfortable. But there’s nothing that gives life more meaning.
When I read this Scripture, I can’t help but think of how amazing it is that God calls the people that God calls. I think of all the great call stories I’ve heard. One of those comes from a Lutheran pastor named Nadia Bolz-Weber. [She tells her story in her book Pastrix. It’s an amazing book, and you can buy it here]Nadia grew up in a Christian home, but it was a very fundamentalist and legalistic Christian home. So when she left for college, she rebelled against it. She became a stand-up comic in Denver and started living the partying life-she got hooked on drugs, she became an alcoholic. She was living this totally destructive life, and she said in her book that she was totally ok with the idea of living hard and fast and dying by the time she was 30.
Nadia grew up in a Christian home, but it was a very fundamentalist and legalistic Christian home. So when she left for college, she rebelled against it. She became a stand-up comic in Denver and started living the partying life-she got hooked on drugs, she became an alcoholic. She was living this totally destructive life, and she said in her book that she was totally ok with the idea of living hard and fast and dying by the time she was 30.
A while later, one of her closest friends took his own life. By this time, Nadia had cleaned herself up some, she’d completely left behind the fundamentalist and legalistic Christianity she was raised in, she dabbled in Paganism for a while, left that too, but still believed in God, or a God of some sort. So when her friend took his own life, she was the only one out of her circle of friends that was the least bit spiritual, so she did his funeral.
Now along the way, she started dating a guy who was actually going to a Lutheran seminary nearby to become a Lutheran pastor. She didn’t know it until the end of their first date, and decided it wasn’t a total turn off, and started attending a Lutheran church with him.
So through these two experiences, Nadia heard a call from God that had been developing for a while, a call to be a pastor to her people-alcoholics, drug addicts, society’s rejects. So she joins a Lutheran church, goes to seminary, becomes a pastor, and starts a new church called the House for All Sinners and Saints, and she and the church are still going strong today.
So notice what happened here. Nadia Bolz-Weber was totally fine with living hard and fast and dying by 30. That was the extent of her dream for herself. But God had another dream for her, and was preparing her for it this whole time. And when she left her dream behind and stepped into God’s dream, the results were amazing.
The same kinds of themes can be seen in Jeremiah’s call story that we have in our Old Testament reading today. Jeremiah was from the Village of Anathoth, a small village almost 3 miles northeast of Jerusalem. It was a Levitical town, which meant that it was a town given to the Levites, the Israelite tribe who served as priests and spiritual leaders for the people. So this means that Jeremiah came from a family of priests and was a priest himself. A small town pastor’s kid who becomes a small town pastor himself.
According to what Jeremiah said here, he was young. Some scholars think that Jeremiah could have been as young as 18 when God’s call came to him. And you thought a 21-year old pastor was young when I came here!
Jeremiah could have continued living his relatively unremarkable life in Anathoth, but God had a different dream for him. God made him a “prophet over nations and empires, to dig up and pull down, to destroy and demolish, to build and plant.” That’s huge. Jeremiah could have continued living a pretty honorable life as a priest in the village of Anathoth. He could have grown up to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, become a priest, serve in the temple or a synagogue, preside over the rituals that kept the people connected to God. All of that’s important and it would been a good and honorable life. But that might have been Jeremiah’s dream. God had bigger dreams for Jeremiah.
I think God has the same kind of dream for this church. God’s dreams for Alger First United Methodist Church are bigger than our dreams for ourselves. This passage could have been addressed to this church.
God says to us “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; before you were born God set you apart.” Before this church started in 1850 as a house church with a circuit riding pastor, God knew how it would look right now in 2016 and God knew the trajectory that would bring this church to where we are now.
And listen again to the last verse. God appoints Jeremiah “over nations and empires, to dig up and pull down, to destroy and demolish, to build and plant.” Did you catch how huge and expansive that is? If that was what God called one man to do, imagine what God calls a whole church to do.
God’s dreams for us are bigger than our dreams for ourselves. And we are called to follow those dreams. But my question today is…Have we you stopped dreaming altogether? Do you even have any dreams for this church? Maybe you would be fine with the church staying just as it is right now. It’s comfortable, we’re financially stable, all of our friends are here. Maybe you just want to keep coasting along, doing the same things you’ve always done.
But God calls us further. What’s the question I’ve been asking the last several weeks that I also asked at the beginning? What next? What does God have for Alger First UMC to do next? What is the next step God would have us take? I cannot be the only one asking those questions. I am only one broken person. I miss things all the time. Think of the insight we could have as a church if each one of you asked these kinds of questions!
God has bigger dreams ahead of us, and God calls us to step into them. Now that’s a bit scary, I know. If we leave behind our small dreams for this church and step into God’s dreams for this church, Alger First UMC won’t look the same five years from now as it does today. The worship service might look, sound, and work differently. The committee structure might change. The ministries that this church offers might change. You might not be able to keep that same seat in the pew and the same parking spot you’ve had.
Especially if we think of the Community Outreach Center we’re building. It’s actually getting close to completion. Our contractor is preparing for the final inspection, and then there’s only finishing work to do after that. It’s very close. God has big dreams for it and for the work we’re going to be able to do through that building in this community. Are we ready?
This is a scary thing to think of. The God of the whole universe, the God who is on a whole different plane of reality from us but still reaches out to us down here, that God has a dream for this church. That’s no small deal. Jeremiah stepped into God’s dreams for him, and it put him on a collision course with empires, refugees, invading armies, collapsing temples. But through it, God’s dream for a redeemed and transformed people came forth. If we step into God’s dreams for us, there is absolutely no telling the transformation that could happen.
But will you do it? Are you able to do it?
I’ve been trying help you ask the question “what now?” for Alger First UMC over the past several weeks. Last week we talked about how we can find the answer to that question by committing to reading the Bible for ourselves and searching for the answer. This is what I’ve been getting at. God’s dreams for us are bigger than our dreams for ourselves. You read about it all over the pages of the Bible.
So dream bigger. This week, I want you to keep asking “What’s next?” for this church. Keep asking God what God has for Alger First UMC to do next. Keep searching for the answer in your Bibles by following that reading plan in your bulletins. And as you ask those questions and search for the answers in your Bibles, dream bigger.