The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire

Sermon  January 31, 2016
Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 1:4-10


The Rev. Robert Vodra

     This week we have moved into the Old Testament to the book of Jeremiah.  So a little history, Jeremiah started his ministry in about 626 BCE, that is Before Current Era, or what most of us learned in school as BC.  He is considered a major prophet.  This does not give him any more power or importance than any of the other prophets, just means that he has a longer book in our Bible.  Jeremiah is also cool because he is a prophet for not only Jewish and Christians, but also Muslims.  He does not appear in the Koran, but his story is told in other Muslim books, and is generally accepted as a prophet in the Islamic faith. 

     His ministry continued until the Babylonian’s took Jerusalem in 586 BCE, remember the dates go backwards when we are talking Old Testament, so his ministry lasted about 40 years.  His books are long and kind of hard to understand, but his main focus seems to be that Israel was disobeying God, and they would not be able to stay in their land if they kept this up.  Of course many have said that before and after, but since it happened, Jeremiah’s words were eventually written down.  The book was probably written once they were in Babylon, in exile.  “Hey remember that thing that Jeremiah said, well look he must be a prophet because it came true.”

     And what was the big deal about the temple in Jerusalem, the land they would be forced to leave?  Moses, when he was in the desert with the early Israelites went up to a mountain, and was given 10 rules on tablets.  Those tablets, those first rules were put into a box, or the Ark of the Covenant.  Moses had specific instructions given by God on how to protect it, and then eventually it went to Jerusalem where the first temple was built.  This first temple was built in 957, and was huge.  Remember this was well before we had even steam power, so everything was cut and moved by hand, then assembled.  And of course, everyone knew the temple, so nobody ever recorded exactly what was there.  We think there was an outer court, where people gathered to worship, an inner court, or court of the Priests, and then the actual temple building with a small inner room where the ark of the covenant was.  For the early Israelites, this is where God was.  God touched these tablets and God lived in that inner room, the Holy of Holies.
     And much of your faith revolved around the temple.  Of course you went there to worship, but this was also where all your sacrifices had to be performed.  You could not do that in other places because God lived in the temple and it was a sacrifice to God.  Now this first temple was not the one that Jesus worshipped in.  That one was built on the same site in about 538, after the Jewish people were allowed to go back to Jerusalem, and about 48 years after the last temple had been destroyed. 

     Don’t get too hung up with the dates, just to keep in straight in my mind, I think roughly 1000 years before Jesus, first temple built, roughly 500 years before Jesus first temple destroyed, Babylonian Exile, and second temple built, and then just after Jesus, second temple destroyed.  If you really get into the history, even in those 500 years of each temple, they were ransacked, renovated, and things done to them many times, but really simple history is two temples, each 500 years. 

     The Babylonian exile is important because the Jewish people were taken away from the temple, where God lived, and God’s house was destroyed.  If we cannot perform the sacrifices to God, in God’s house, how are we supposed to be God’s people?
     Today we read about Jeremiah being called by God.  I believe that we are all called by God, sometimes we listen, sometimes we don’t.  I am not suggesting that we are all called to ordained pastoral ministry, but we may be called to be those who bring cookies to coffee hour, or called to drive someone to the doctor, or visit someone in the hospital.  There are so many ministries in the church.  Today at the annual meeting, you should be reminded as you look through the annual report about all the different things that happen here, and how each of us is called to help in some way.

     But I wanted to share a bit about my call to ministry this morning.  I am not a prophet, but any stretch, so it is difficult to even compare my story to Jeremiah’s story. 

     I have mentioned before that I grew up in the church, and that is pretty accurate.  My mother was very active, eventually became the Sunday School Coordinator, then was hired to be their Christian Education Coordinator, so we spent a lot of time at church.  Just as you may see me bring my kids to church the night I have a meeting, that was how I grew up.  My father was an airline pilot, so would travel.  When he was gone, if my mother had a meeting, I would go with her or occasionally would have a baby sitter.  My first interest was the physical building.  I have mentioned shoveling snow in the winter, I also mowed lawns in the summer, sat in with the Property committee on their meetings, and any work day or other event, I would be at the church helping where I could.  I can still go to the barn, and see where I painted.  I can go into the parsonage, and remember painting this room and that room.  And I bet I could still find some of those attics and creepy crawl spaces I used to love to explore.
     When I was 12 my mother sent me to summer camp.  Just a week.  Back in those days we didn’t have a lot of say in what we did, my parents might have asked me, but I don’t remember.  I went, didn’t know anyone who would be there, and had a blast.  I left in tears saying “I don’t want to leave, when can I go back.”  And I did go back every summer until I was old enough to work there, and then I worked there for several summers. 

     When I went to college it was natural for me to get involved in the campus ministry.  First by attending worship services, the moving into their building just off campus grounds, serving on their board of directors and search committee.  When I got close to graduation I got a call from a minister in Connecticut.  She was not my minister, just one I had met at the camp I had been working at.  I don’t remember us being particularly close, but she asked if I could be a male chaperon for a mission trip they were planning.  She knew that I was in Maine, their work site was at HOME Co-op, where I know that you have sent mission trips to.  We did good work, helped build a barn that was going to be used for a second hand clothing store, hauled hay, worked on an addition on someone’s house, and did other jobs around the site.  We got into a discussion around the wood burning stove one night.  It was very powerful to hear the stories of these kids as they opened up.  They were from Greenwich, CT, which is a very affluent area, yet one girl talked about her father’s abuse, another talked about her parent’s drug use.  The problems they were facing were no different than any other area I have visited or worked.  These problems are not more common or less common based on income.

     But this also really messed up my plans.  I was graduating with a degree in Forestry.  I was in my last semester, and was not going to back out or change my major at that point.  But I realized that counting trees, measuring trees, predicting future growth and planning harvests suddenly did not excite me as much as it did a few months before.  Forestry, at least in many ways, was a solo job.  I realized that I wanted to interact with people, but what could I do?

     When I left college I was kind of unemployed.  I had a volunteer job with the Board for Homeland ministries set up, but knew that was short term and only paid $50 a month, plus room and board.  I went to Missouri, not really knowing what I was going to do with my life.  One day my boss told me that I had to drive a van up to the Missouri Mid South Conference Offices, in St. Louis.  We had to pick up or drop off something.  He told me it was on the Eden Seminary campus, and I really should walk around.  I didn’t know what building I was going to, so I did end up wandering around, ending up in the admission’s office.  We chatted, and they gave me a packet and encouraged me to consider the call to ministry.  I had some friends who had gone to Seminary fairly recently, none there, but it was one of the about 7 seminaries I knew about.  When I went back to the volunteer job that night I read, and I began to think about it.  My grades were not great in college, but I did pass everything and graduated.  Not even sure if I could get into graduate school.
     After leaving that position in Missouri, I decided to stop and visit a friend who was at Lancaster Seminary in Pennsylvania.  He said “Rob, you should just apply.”  No, no, I did get that packet from Eden, but do I really want to go back to school for another 3 years.  I don’t have the money, I don’t know if I have the motivation.  I bet I could find an apartment somewhere, maybe use my degree, or at least get something that would pay the bills.  But something inside of me kept saying “Go for it.” 

     So I made the decision to try.  When I contacted those who I asked to be references they all said the same thing, we knew this was going to happen, we could have told you many years ago you would be going to seminary, but you needed to figure it out on your own.

     When I arrived at seminary we talked a lot about our calls.  Mine was weak.  We would go around the room and hear about a spouse dying in a tragic accident that pushed this person into seminary.  Someone with a law degree, who had been arrested for drug possession and lost his license.  A woman who had just gone through a messy divorce.  They all seemed to be huge events, and I could point to at least a dozen events in my life, but not a single huge event.  Sure the night I decided I might not use my degree was important.  But so were the seeds planted in Sunday School.  Not just older Sunday School, but I even remember being in the nursery, there were adults who were knew my names, played with me, and cared for me and cared about me.  The seeds planted in Confirmation, where my former First Grade teacher was my confirmation mentor.  The three campus ministers who served the campus ministry when I was in college.  Of course the ministers serving the church I grew up in, but also the members who knew me and were honest and sincere in their conversations with me. 

     Most of you know that I this is the second church I have served as an interim.  Before that I had been mostly directing youth camps.  When I took the interim position in Mason my biggest fear was writing a sermon every week.  I had preached in churches while I was a camp director, but maybe 5 or 6 a year.  They were different churches, so I wrote one sermon that I recycled over and over for that year, and then would write a new one the next year.  But getting that first one for that year on paper took time.

     And even now, you are not getting a recycled sermon, this is new every week.  They still take time, but a little less than in past years.  I start my preparations the same way that I start my sermons, with a prayer.  “God please bless the words that I will write on the paper and speak to the congregation, and bless those ears that hear it, that it will be acceptable in your sight.”  As the week goes on, I see things, I think of things, maybe God shows me something that will help me in forming the sermon.  I don’t claim to speak the words of God, but hope that God does guide my words, that I can speak the truth as I see it, and you will hear a truth for your life. 

     My call included a lot of “I am not ready” or “I am not good enough” or “Not me God, don’t want to say, but I think you are wrong on this one.”  Jeremiah said “I am just a boy.”  We all have excuses.  We are too young, or too old, don’t have the right gifts.  But I started by saying that God calls each of us.  We turn away, I tried, Jeremiah tried, but God never gives up.  We are constantly presented opportunities.  I have a little extra money left over at the end of the year, I will give an extra gift to the church.  I am free this night, I will go help out at Gramma’s table.  I heard that this person is in the hospital, I will go visit them.  I cannot get out much anymore, I don’t have any money left over at the end of the month, much less the year, but I can send a note of care to another church member, or even a friendly phone call.  And the most important thing that we can all do is pray.  Pray for each other, pray for the town, pray for your concerns, and give thanks to God for the gift of life in you.