Jeremiah 1:4-10 and Luke 13:10-17 – ‘hearing the call’
Reflection by Anne Stewart

A couple of weeks ago we were introduced to the prophet Isaiah and we talked about the role of prophets. Today we heard God’s call to Jeremiah to speak for God as a prophet and a very young Jeremiah’s response. Jeremiah protests, as you would, citing youth and lack of experience as reasons not to choose him. And the Lord said, don’t say that, you’ll go where I send you and speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.”

I am not aware of ever being asked to be a prophet and cannot imagine trying to respond to that call! But late last year I was asked if I would lead the chapel services at Rangi Ruru Girls School. The chapel services are held, generally weekly, on Mondays. Now I had several good reasons why this wasn’t a good idea. Firstly, teenagers can be scary especially when you are faced with several hundred of them. I had no opportunity to develop relationships with the students because these chapels are the only time they see me. Preaching to strangers whose lives you can only really speculate about is a whole other thing from working with people whose lives you know well. Added to that, the vast majority of the students don’t come from church backgrounds so I couldn’t rely on faith jargon in the way that I can here in a way that we don’t even think about because we pretty much all speak the same language, enough to understand one another anyway. Also, I am not a teacher and don’t consider that part of ministry to be my strength. And, I went to a decidedly state, co-ed school where thinking you might have something to say and raising your head above the parapet was just an invitation to have it shot down. And then, finally, I had to reckon with what losing my Mondays would do for my ability to get to Totara Valley so often. So, lots of good reasons to resist the call!

Frankly, the whole thing terrified me, which is part of the reason why I said yes. I thought it might be good for me to step into a terror zone, and the thought of preparing something for teenagers with little or no church background meant I would have to find a way to communicate that would stretch and grow me. In my time as Moderator of the Presbytery, I had formed a good relationship with the school principal. On the way to meet her for the first time I had to have a strong word with myself and make the decision not to be intimidated by being called to the principal’s office. By late last year, I had come to know her to be a fun, inspiring, and down to earth woman, and we had clicked right away. That decision not to be afraid meant we could both relax and just be ourselves and I have continued to enjoy our interactions.

I am genuinely sad that my move to South Canterbury will mean that I can no longer continue my involvement with the school. The students I have interacted with have been awesome, they are similarly down-to-earth and real because this is modelled and encouraged from the top down. I have heard some remarkable stories told about their lives, and the sense of the fun they have there has caused me to rethink my previously uninformed opinion on such schools. In hindsight, I can see now what I would have missed if I had given into my fears around my inabilities. I did sense God calling me there but I am also aware that there have been times when I have ignored such calls in the past, and I know I have missed out because of this. This time I made the choice I did, because I trusted that if God wanted me there then God would be with me all the way. That has also worked in the past! Maybe, the more we learn to notice God with us in difficult times the better tuned we are to trust God’s presence as we move forward.

I have also found myself driven by the desire to have the students leave school with a good experience of the religious character of the school rather than bad memories of the ‘church stuff’ they had to endure. I remember Martin’s experience in Dunedin where the students from Columba College were forced to march along Highgate to church at Maori Hill each Sunday. One day Mart was walking through the foyer of the church and he came across a young woman standing there looking quite distressed. He stopped and asked if he could help her and she told him that she had been a student at Columba College and this had been her church during that time. She was soon to be married and she was considering being married at the church she had attended as a student. But standing there she realised that she couldn’t actually get herself across the threshold and into the church, such were her memories of what she had been forced to endure there years before. That story really struck both of us and has stayed close. It reinspired Mart to work hard to make it as easy and enjoyable as he could for the students, realising the precious opportunity he had been given to leave the students with good memories of the religious content in their schooldays.

The gospel is meant to set us free, not bind us even further. That’s an essential part of the Jesus message.
That’s why God speaks and why God calls us to follow. God’s call to freedom from whatever binds us is why we do what we do and live as we do. We are all called to live and share this state of freedom, not just those ordained to eldership or ministry. It’s why and how we participate in following Jesus. It’s why Jesus healed the woman who had been bent double, crippled for 18 years. He was calling her to shake off the shackles that had bound her and bent her out of shape. He calls us to do the same. If Jesus was to walk in right now and offer you freedom, what do you think would be the things that bend you out of shape that you need to let go of? Have you noticed? Can you name them? Here’s a few to get you started; worry, loss, loneliness, pressure, guilt, broken relationships…

Often people commenting on this story get themselves bent out of shape by over-emphasising the healing on the Sabbath bit. Jesus is pretty clear that being set free of whatever burdens us is a good thing, any day. There are no days on which being set free is a bad thing! This story begs the question too; is God’s work now to be restricted to the limits we put on God? Can God do God’s thing only within the timeframe we make available to God? Tying the idea of Sabbath rest to one particular day is something we seem to be more bothered about. Don’t get me wrong, Sabbath rest is a wonderful and very necessary thing, but it’s a way of being, more than something we have to do on a set day. Many of you will have memories of what you could and couldn’t do on Sunday when you were growing up. I have good memories of the shape of Sunday’s when I was young. It was church in our Sunday best, roast lunch which left cold meat for the week, a drive in the country, which fuelled my love of the country, a light tea, a read and then bed. All of that was done just a shade slower and more relaxed on Sunday. Maybe not for my mother, but she thrived on routine, and this was a very routine day.

When we are busy with things that have come to be burdensome, we can become crippled, bent, misshapen and living in ways that don’t promote growth or well-being. We might not be so easy to be around and find ourselves more and more isolated, and we’re left wondering why this is so. When we are carrying something that we can’t let go of, anger, bitterness, resentment, grief or despair, we cannot be fully ourselves, or be fully alive. These things rob us of our joy. They steal our ability to live abundantly well. We can get twisted out of shape by hanging on to these things, and become caricatures of who we were created to be. When we are so bound up in following the rules that we are living in blindness to the realities around us and unable to see how our lives are affecting others, we can be dangerous. Being set in our ways and closed to anything new can bind us to old ways that may not even be working anymore, and we need to be free to see new possibilities.

The freedom that Jesus calls us to is not a life devoid of all cares though. It’s not freedom in the sense that we can all do just what we like without any thought for those around us. That’s another brand of freedom, one getting way too much airtime at present! The freedom being touted by protestors and those seeking seats on councils at present is one in which there is very little responsibility. I am not a great Spiderman fan, actually, I am not a fan of anything to do with spiders but I do love that quote famous in the story, ‘with great power comes great responsibility!’ I am not sure that we can be free without responsibility because we are never free of others, we are always connected, and therefore what we do always affects others.

I have been pondering on how this plays out too in the life of the congregation, within our church family. Are we serving because we hear God calling us, or are we duty-bound and needing to be set free? There is a lot of work needed to keep our church family humming any day of the week. To spare the family we try to spread the load, but we often question how to balance the tension between doing what needs to be done and wearing people out. Our church family should be a place of rest and refuge; it should bring life and health to us all. Sometimes we may start off doing something because we are drawn to it by joy and love (even sensing God’s call) and then we can fall into compulsion and expectation. What do we do when we feel this change happening within ourselves? We are all wired differently of course, and for some answering the call to help is life-giving. But for others it can become overwhelming. I wonder if the answer lies in remembering why we do what we do, finding a sustainable rhythm, and recognising how every little bit makes the whole work. And especially lightening up on how we approach what we do. If we are shamed and compelled into helping then we will quickly tire and begin to resent what is asked of us. Family, church or otherwise, is not a perfect system, but it can be a very good one if we remember God calls us to be in it and Jesus desires to help us know the freedom of being in community. We know from the call of Jeremiah that we can do things we didn’t think we could do because God promises to be with us, enabling and sustaining us, inviting us into new attitudes to what we do. This year, may Spring bring with it a sense of rejuvenation to how we all approach how we serve the church family, so we can move forward as a community with a sense of spreading God’s joy and fulfilling God’s purpose.