A long time ago when I was a very young pastor just starting out, an older woman pastor took me to lunch. I don’t remember where we went, what we ate, or even very much of the substance of our conversation that day. But I do remember this. Before we left she offered this very sage advice, “When things get hard, and they will, don’t assume that people are resisting you because you are a woman. It’s as likely to be because you are young. Or because you’re the assistant pastor.”
I was grateful for her wise words and have repeated them more than once. I expect it kept me from going down a path of bitterness which others, no doubt many justifiably, had not been able to avoid. Even so, her words didn’t take away the truth that often we are judged by things over which we have little or no control. Often others will say, ‘But she’s only… he’s only…” Others may echo the thoughts which are lurking in the corners of our own minds as well: ‘Just who does she think she is?!?” And yes, it appears that is part of what is happening in the violent scene which plays out in today’s Gospel where Jesus’ listeners ask among themselves, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” “Isn’t this the boy Jesus, now somehow grown up and changed right before our eyes?”
For yes, I too, am prone to go to ‘only.’ I’m only one person. I only have this much time, this much staff, this many resources. It’s been some time now since I’ve said, “I’m only a girl…” and yes, I need to watch in myself that tendency to discount the words, the gifts, the abilities, of others who haven’t yet acquired the gray hairs and the forming wrinkles which are now mine. Still, I do know what it is to feel Jeremiah’s hesitation when he voiced his reluctance, “Ah Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” I know what it is to wonder about where one’s authority to do, to speak, to be comes from. And I do find it to be great comfort that it comes from outside of me. And not just outside of me, but that this call has the authority of the voice of God all over it. At least in the case of the call that was placed upon Jeremiah, which has also been placed upon you and me.
For the work we have been given to do will not always be easy. It wasn’t for Jeremiah. It certainly wasn’t for Jesus. And yet, it is a call, an authority, which I need to remember to carry humbly. (I speak now of my experience as pastor, but I expect we can all find parallels regardless of where life has led us: in our professions, to be sure, but even more so in our lives of faith.) Indeed, how often have I seen my colleagues assume that since they hold the title of ‘pastor,’ people ought to automatically follow them. No, I am not among those whose experience has shown that was ever the case. Perhaps in another generation, but not today. Rather, I would venture to say that at least in part, my authority comes from holding the hand of a frightened parishioner as he undergoes an unexpected medical test. My authority comes from answering the call in the middle of the night to sit alongside an old man while his wife undergoes emergency surgery. My authority comes from simply showing up day after day, week after week, and trying to live the words of Paul’s call to love today — and yes, failing, and then remembering to ask for forgiveness and trying once more. In some ways, this was also so for Jesus, I realize. He may have been proclaimed God’s beloved Son at his baptism, but from there he went to the wilderness to be tested and from there he was thrust into his ministry: teaching and preaching and healing, living and dying. He was given the authority, yes, but he earned it, too. And I am still learning that like Jesus, most of all, whatever authority I have, first and finally comes from turning to the One who gave me the authority, the one who issued the call in the first place. And so yes, I am strengthened whenever I remember that this call is bigger than only me. And it’s bigger than only the people I serve alongside. It is bigger even than all the calls ever answered by all those given authority all the way back to Jeremiah and before.
And so we are left with this today. In the end, it is simply this: the call is from God. This call to speak as Jeremiah did… loving the people enough to call them to account. This call to love as Paul urged the people of Corinth to do. This call to live and serve and heal and teach and die as Jesus did. For all the ways in which it is lived out and earned in and among flesh and blood people here on earth, it is still bigger than only that.
So for me to say ‘I am only’ is not really to speak poorly of me — for us to say ‘we are only’ is not really to speak poorly of our congregations, our communities. For it will always be so that alone I will be ‘only.’ It will always be so that even as a congregation we may well be ‘only.’ That even as a synod, a church body, a federation, we will be ‘only.’ Only one, only this much time, experience, gifted-ness, energy, money, focus, passion…. Only. No, to say, “Only,” is not to sell ourselves short. It is actually, finally, to not sell short what we believe God can do, what God has already been doing, what God promises to do in us and through all of our individual ‘onlys.’
Indeed, you are never ‘only.’ Along with Jeremiah, along with Jesus, along with all those who have answered the call before, you are called by God. Remembering that and with that alone, we can leave ‘only’ behind.
- When did you last say, “But I am only…” What were the circumstances? Where did things go from there?
- Where does your ‘authority’ come from? What does it mean to you to ‘carry the call lightly?’
- What difference does it make to you to remember that you are called by God? When, specifically, has that mattered to you?