And God said to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jer 1:5)
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” Says God. “I consecrated you. I appointed you.”
You would think with a promise like that, Jeremiah would have an easy time of it. But that’s most certainly not how the story goes. God called Jeremiah to be a prophet – someone who was called to remind Judah just how far they were straying from God’s Will. He made some speeches, but mostly he was like a modern-day performance artist – and an unpopular one at that even though he seemed to be quite able to gather a crowd.
He did his best to wake people from their trance and help them return to a covenanted life with God. And because of this, he made people feel uncomfortable. It’s never fun to be reminded that you’re not holding true to your promises. This made them angry. And they reacted. He was shunned, cursed, and plotted against by his community. He was not a happy man.
And so, he felt lonely and cursed God for his predicament again and again. Despite this assurance God gave him at the beginning of his ministry – that God would be with him and would deliver him, Jeremiah kept forgetting that God was with him. It wasn’t hard to forget. He often became desperate in his life as the outcast freak show of his community.
Now, I’m not sure that the extent of Jeremiah’s pain is something we are all called to experience in our Christian vocation. But the lesson Jeremiah does provide is two-fold: First, Christian vocation is not something that is always going to be filled w satisfaction and ease because it’s not about you and who or what you want to be. It’s about who God needs you to be. And second, God is always with you, even and most especially in the moments when you feel lost and without hope.
Now, while I sometimes shake my fist at the masterminds behind the lectionary and their decisions to yoke pieces of scripture together, I think this passage from Jeremiah and the story of Jesus healing on the Sabbath are beautiful partners in delivering the deeper message here.
Jesus heals a woman. Now, let’s put aside the knowledge that he did this on the Sabbath and the implications of that aside for a moment. Let’s focus on the idea of healing and what that means.
We tend to think of healing as fixing a part of ourselves that is broken. And this Gospel story from today certainly reinforces that understanding. The woman is “unable to stand up straight.”
Most of the commentary I’ve read on this story describes a physical healing – a fixing of this woman’s crippled spine so that she could physically stand up straight. Further, it lays the blame for this physical ailment on “a spirit” – the work of a demon.
Now, however you feel about this miraculous physical healing and whatever you might think about the existence of demons – whether you hear this story as metaphor or as a literal physical healing – the story depicts a woman being freed from the oppression of whatever has been weighing her down… so that she might come to know God and offer praise. So that she might discern her call as a rejoined member of that community, free from that which has kept her crippled for so long. New life. A resurrection, of sorts.
And when we stop to think about the things that are weighing us down, when we consider that which is getting in the way of a deeper connection with God, it may be a physical ailment. But it’s more likely something else. A wound unseen by the world that we carry in our hearts.
A belief that we need to be other than what we are to be valued or loved or useful.
A desire to be fixed in some way so that we can feel whole.
And the Good News, my friends, is that while your wound is real, God is with you in it and this wound does not determine who you are, nor who you are called to be by God.
The Good News is that you are already exactly who you need to be and God is calling you to accept yourself just as He accepts you. You are already perfect.
The Good News is there is nothing to be fixed in a beloved child of God because you are already whole. You are already blessed and a blessing, having been being formed in the very image of God.
And the healing in today’s gospel story happens on the Sabbath, just as it should. Because the healing is the action of receiving the Word of God, so that we can come to know our wholeness more fully. So that we might live no longer for ourselves and the things we think we need in order to be better or different, but that we may accept our blesssedness and become one body and one spirit in Christ.
And so, the gospel story is about God’s mission and how God uses our vocation to further that mission in the world. Jesus unbinds this woman from her demon, just as he unbinds us from those demonic thoughts which trick us into thinking we are less than what we are.
Jesus unbinds us from our beliefs of inferiority and shows us the sacred order of our life just as it is so that we are free to stand up straight and praise God from the depths of our soul with the beautiful body we have been given. Jesus heals our thoughts and delivers us from those cruel whispers and those wicked voices that tell us we are broken.
And this happens, as it should, on the Sabbath. We are unbound on the Sabbath and given new life on the day of rest, the day of praise, the day of resurrection. And this unbinding, this deliverance is so that we might become that which God has consecrated us to be from before our birth. And that is our vocation.
Vocation can be a tricky word. We so often connect it with our job. And it’s not that vocation is disconnected from our job, but it is not the same thing as our job. Let me illustrate this with a story.
A man fell into the business of selling carpet for a living. He sold wall-to-wall. He sold area rugs. He sold patio carpet. He even sold welcome mats. After becoming good at his job, he started thinking about what was next for him. A few of his friends were discontent, looking for better jobs with more money, so they could buy bigger houses, with more things. He saw other people who seemed like they “had it all together.” He read about people who had jobs or positions of power he was jealous of. And he started wondering, What is wrong with me? Why am I not happy? How do I fix this?
And this man became distraught, thinking that he was meant for more than a simple life of selling carpet. It’s not that he didn’t enjoy his job. He liked interacting with customers and he made a living that was enough. But he became convinced that his life was unfulfilled.
He started going to church more often, looking for some kind of sign. And soon he developed friendships with others. One day he found himself in a conversation about vocation. “Ha-ha!” he thought. “Now, I’ll find an answer about what it is I’m truly called to be doing in this world.”
And here’s what he discovered: his vocation had nothing to do with his job, but it had everything to do with how he understood his purpose. God had called him to a life of service, just as we are all called to service.
And gradually, this man saw that his vocation was to help people create spaces of beauty and graciousness in their homes and, sometimes, their businesses. He started connecting with the people he served in a deeper way, listening to their desires and their needs and helping them in other ways, like adjusting his business practices, sponsoring community endeavors, offering extended services.
And as he continued to connect his life in the world with the healing he received through the Word of God, he started to experience a widening of his vocation. He saw that he was called to be in service to God’s whole creation. And he started carrying lines of carpet that were sustainably produced and manufactured in factories that treated their workers ethically. Soon, he was educating other business owners on how to spot sustainable production in their product lines and several of them created an advocacy group for ethical business practices. In all this, still his job was to sell carpet. But his vocation was to serve God’s holy creation.
Once in a while, when he would get together with his friends over a drink or at a planning meeting, they would share stories about what inspired them to get more involved in this advocacy work, and this man would talk about the healing he received at church.
The healing that invited him to remember his wholeness because he was formed by God in the womb. The healing that enlightened him to the knowledge that he was consecrated for a purpose before he was born. The healing that called him to a vocation as a member of the Body of Christ. A vocation of service to God’s whole creation.
Parker Palmer is a Quaker who is a writer, teacher, and activist. He writes a lot about vocation and purpose. In his book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, Palmer says we often start w a concept of “vocation, or calling, [that] comes from… a voice of moral demand that asks us to become someone we are not yet – someone different, someone better, someone just beyond our reach.”
And he says, this understanding of vocation is “rooted in a deep distrust of selfhood…” which in his experience, made him “feel inadequate to the task of living [his] own life, creating guilt about the distance between who [he] was and who [he] was supposed to be…”
As he continued his journey of discernment, he finally began to understand that “[vocation is] not a goal to be achieved but a gift to be received. Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to become the person I was born to be, to fulfill [not deny or distrust] the original selfhood given me at birth by God.” (Palmer pg 10)
Discernment begins a journey of vocation. And this journey is not easy. Often we feel lonely. Sometimes we feel scared. And there are occasions when we are likely to feel quite angry with God because we are being asked to do something we don’t feel comfortable with. More than once I’ve said, “this is not what I signed up for.”
But God is with us in all of it. It’s not always happy or fun. And, as I said, it’s not easy. But there is a joy and an ease that comes when we surrender to our vocational call. Because we realize have a deeply rooted trust in ourselves and in our connection to God. We have always had it. And that is healing.