I have always been allergic to moral exhortation. It is probably a consequence of being endlessly exhorted at a child to do various boring and useless things such as to be polite to my elders and betters, to be seen but only occasionally heard at meal times, to obey such idiotic instructions as to wash behind my ears and change my socks more frequently than once a term, and to pay attention during lessons at school, even during such overpoweringly narcotic subjects as algebra. As if all this was not enough to put me off moral exhortation for life, I got much of the same on Sundays from assorted clergymen, who smelled strongly of pipe tobacco and coal tar soap, if you were rash enough to get too near them, and who spent hours and hours in the pulpit telling me to be good, never to tell lies, not to covet my neighbour’s ox or his ass (I didn’t find that too difficult), to refrain from such things as adultery, which sounded intriguing, though I had no idea what it was, and not to murder people, even schoolmasters, who seemed to me to be obvious candidates for a little enjoyable homicide.
As a result of all this childhood experience, normally I refrain from moral exhortation in the pulpit; but childhood memories are not the only reason I do so. I also avoid it, because it can be - and usually is - self-defeating; for, whether we care to admit it or not, there is something in human nature which makes us react to such notices as ‘Keep off the Grass’ with an immediate urge to trample all over the wretched stuff; whereas, if there had been no notice, we would have continued to walk happily along the path without dreaming of deviating to right or to left. And this characteristic of human nature seems to have been recognized by Jesus; for where he had been brought up as an orthodox Jew to believe that obedience to the Ten Commandments - the ten great ‘Thou-shalt-nots’ - was fundamental to a man’s religious duty, he replaced them with two great positive commandments - love God, and love your neighbour - knowing that, if those two positive commands were obeyed, the old restrictive commandments would be out of a job; they would be redundant. For who is going to murder his neighbour, seduce his neighbour’s wife, steal from his neighbour -or whatever - if he genuinely loves his neighbour?
But having said all that, there are some occasions when something rather like moral exhortation becomes almost unavoidable; and today - the second Sunday after Epiphany - is one of them. For all three Bible readings appointed for today raise the subject of the demands God makes on those whom he chooses to be his own - his people, his children, his servants, his messengers, his hands and feet and mouths and voices.
The first passage describes God’s call to Jeremiah and Jeremiah’s horrified response. ‘The word of the Lord came to me. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you for my own; before you were born I consecrated you. I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” “Ah! Lord God”, I answered, “I do not know how to speak. I am only a child.”’ But Jeremiah obeyed; he lent his voice to God before the nations - and as a result he was persecuted all his life, at one point being imprisoned and later thrown into a pit and left to die. Rescued by an Ethiopian eunuch, he was exiled to Egypt, where, it is said, he was stoned to death by his fellow exiles. He was one of the great and glorious Jews, to whom one day I must do greater justice than is possible in a couple of sentences.
The next reading describes St Paul’s conversion, ‘I was travelling to Damascus….when I heard a voice saying to me in the Jewish language, “Saul, Saul, Why do you persecute me?”’ It is one of the most dramatic scenes in history. You all know it and how it ends. Like Jeremiah, Paul was so overcome that he fell to the ground, only to discover when he got up again that he was blind. Three days later, he recovered his sight, and later still set off on his lifetime task of attempting to open the eyes of the citizens of the Roman world to the truth about God, which had been revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and as a result - like Jeremiah - he was persecuted wherever he went. In a later letter to the infant Church in Corinth he described the cost of his obedience. ‘In labours more abundantly, in prisons often, in stripes above measure, in deaths often. Often was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day have I been in the deep…in danger of robbers, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from the Gentiles, in danger in the city, in danger in the wilderness, in danger in the sea, in danger among false brethren.’ And eventually, he was martyred in Rome under Nero - or so it is said.
Lastly and very briefly, the third reading - this time from Mark’s Gospel - describes the calling of the first Apostles. ‘Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, when he saw Simon and his brother Andrew on the lake at work with a casting-net, for they were fishermen. Jesus said, “Come with me and I will make you fishers of men.” And at once they left their nets and followed him.’ Later, as everyone knows, Peter was martyred in Rome, Andrew, his brother, probably suffered a similar death too; we don’t know for sure. However, we do know that the cost of discipleship in those early days was high.
Even so, I am not about to indulge in a flurry of moral exhortation. There is no need to do so. Those three readings are enough to make us all think about our own response to Christ’s call to us to follow him, and how we are getting on, without any encouragement from me. But I will finish, if I may, with a comment or two, addressed at least as much to myself as to you. Maybe fortunately - and certainly obviously - none of us are likely to be mistaken for a Jeremiah, a Paul, or a Peter; but none of us would be here this morning, if we had not been called to do something in God’s service.
Happily, whatever we may sometimes think as churchmen, we are not the only people whom God has called to do things for him. He is not half as narrow-minded in his preferences as we are, consorting with many different types of people - nurses, doctors, social workers, teachers, politicians, Samaritans, scientists, astronomers, mathematicians - many of whom are not church-goers but nevertheless respond, obey, dedicate themselves, and pay the price. They are those to whom Jesus referred, when he spoke of those who do not say ‘Lord, Lord,’ but who try to do the will of God as best they can; and we must never forget or under-value them. But the fact that they are our allies should not allow us to forget that his one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, of which we are all members - limbs, hands, feet, and voices - could do with as many min-Jeremiahs, min-Pauls and mini-Peters as will listen, respond, and be prepared to go wherever they may be led, even though they haven’t a clue as to where that may be or what the journey is likely to cost; and today’s readings inevitably challenge each of us to examine the nature of his or her own vocation and the sufficiency of our response - in other words, they challenge us to answer the question. ‘How are you doing?’