Proper 16 – 8-25–2019 – St. Paul’s
Seeking absolution, the scandal-plagued star pleads that he didn’t know who he was. Leaving a high-pressure corporate job, the young woman pledges to take some time off to find herself. Books, seminars, and psychedelics are sold as journeys of self-discovery. There is no more American religion than self-help. It offers to take your cloud of free associations and gut reactions and give you the scaffolding from which to build an actualized self, a version of you that is the best that you can be. Wielding mindfulness, CrossFit, and green smoothies, you can construct your identity. Existentialist philosophers promise that you will be exactly what you choose to be as you exercise your freedom in self-creation.
Our scripture this morning from the prophet Jeremiah cuts against this understanding. While a young boy, the word of the Lord comes to him and tells him who he is. God says, Before I created you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I made you a prophet to the nations. (Jeremiah 1:5)
I formed you; I knew you; you were born; I consecrated you; I appointed you. The only verb in that sequence that Jeremiah is the subject of is were born. That’s it. The only thing than Jeremiah can take credit for is being born, and we all know that Jeremiah doesn’t deserve the credit for his birth any more than any other baby can claim credit for his or her birth.
Jeremiah’s identity does not come from what he wants to be. It is not something he actualizes nor his own creation. Jeremiah’s identity is foisted upon him like a thick sweater at Christmas, but instead of hearing, I made this for you, he hears, I made you for this. The Lord knows who Jeremiah is before his parents were parents. Jeremiah’s essence precedes his existence. While he is unborn, the Lord has plans for him.
Don’t you love Jeremiah’s response? Ah, Lord God!…I don’t know how to speak because I’m only a child (1:6). It’s perfectly reasonable, eminently practical —even if it is somewhat self-defeating to speak, I don’t know how to speak. God shows up to a child and tells him that he is the prophet to the nations. The child responds, Am I not a little young to be a prophet to the nations? As if to say, God, don’t you think it’s a little irresponsible to ask a child to do this? Shouldn’t you be selecting someone a bit more qualified, someone people will respect, someone with a more imposing jawline and a more resonant voice? What are you thinking asking this of a child?
God’s answer likely doesn’t fit the recommendations of panels of child-rearing experts. God simply says, Don’t say, I’m only a child. Where I send you, you must go; what I tell you, you must say (1:7). In God’s divine Because I said so, Jeremiah’s objections are totally overruled. Jeremiah’s job is not to understand why God has elected to do things in this way but to be obedient. Jeremiah doesn’t need to know why God has picked him from before birth and has called him while a child: he does need to go where God tells him to go and speak what God tells him to speak.
Jeremiah does not go out as a prophet to the nations on his own merits but on those of his Lord. If Jeremiah can boast, it is, like Paul, in his weakness. Power is made perfect in weakness, Paul tells us (2 Corinthians 12:9). Don’t go thinking God won’t use you for the mysterious and marvelous purposes of bringing God’s kingdom to earth. Not when your God is the God who appoints a runt of a shepherd boy to be king. Not when your God is the God who becomes incarnate in the flesh of a poor, unmarried girl. Not when your God is the God who strikes a violent religious zealot blind so that he can go out to proclaim the word. Not when your God is the God who takes a young boy and consecrates him, appoints him the prophet to the nations.
God doesn’t stop at Because I said so but it is not so God can go on to explain why God has chosen Jeremiah. God doesn’t give a reassurance of the reasons for why it has to be the way that it is—God seldom does. God says, Don’t be afraid of them, because I’m with you to rescue you (Jeremiah 1:8). The reassurance doesn’t come from an explanation but from a promise. God will be with Jeremiah, be with him to deliver him.
The great novelist Walker Percy said that the one piece of writing that had the greatest converting effect on him was an often-overlooked essay by Soren Kierkegaard The Difference between a Genius and an Apostle. Percy summarizes the thesis: [The genius] can arrive at a truth anywhere, anytime, anyplace, whereas an apostle has heard the news of something that has happened, and he has the authority to tell somebody who hasn’t heard the news what the news is. Thankfully, God does not require geniuses, only apostles–literally, sent ones. It is not the task of the prophet to discover God’s will through feats of intellectual gymnastics but to take the words given and pass them along. Jeremiah’s authority is derived solely from the one who sends him. He can trust in that alone.
The same promise given to Jeremiah is given to us. Our sufferings and our hardship are not going to be explained nor are our vocations. In fact, when we explain the unexplainable, when we sit with the grieving, with the hurting, and put divine sanction on evil, we blaspheme God. We make God out to be the author of evil when God is the source of every good and perfect thing. Though we cannot explain, we can know that God will be with us. We will not always feel the presence of the Lord with us in trials, but this is not the same thing as the Lord abandoning us. Don’t be afraid of them, because I’m with you to rescue you, says the Lord.
Confirming that Jeremiah will speak whatever he is commanded to speak and providing confirmation that he need not be afraid, the Lord stretched out his hand [and] touched my mouth, writes Jeremiah. His words are no longer his but the Lord’s. and the Lord said to me, . . . ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.’(Jeremiah 1:9-10 NRSV)
For those here today who feel the weight of the nation falling down upon you in discrimination and brutal policing, hear that you stand in the tradition of Jeremiah: you are appointed over the nations. They may persecute, but in your prophetic witness to the kingdom of God, you are above them. In not succumbing to the numbing violence and endless consumption of this world, you are over the kingdoms. In proclaiming that The Lord is our God, the Lord alone, that You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might, you are appointed over the false gods of the kingdoms.
For those of us within the systems of the kingdom, entangled in its systems of oppression—which is all of us—remember that even as we are in the kingdoms of this world, we are not of the kingdoms of this world. We have been made citizens of the kingdom of God. Here, in the body of Christ, in the church, we unlearn the ways of the world as we learn the rhythm of grace. We have been called like Jeremiah to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow but also to build and to plant (Jeremiah 1:10 NRSV).
All that is not of the kingdom must be put to death so that the kingdom can be built. This means plucking up the growths of sin and pulling down false gods. It means destroying white supremacy in all its forms, in our churches and outside it. It means overthrowing the cultures and structures that allow sexual violence to proliferate and offenders to go unpunished. It means tearing down the sexist assumptions and practices that drive many capable and called women either out of ministry or away from following their calls in the first place or that prevent so many from being appointed to the larger and more prestigious congregations.
As we are faithful to God’s call to holy destruction, we are faithful also to the call to build and to plant. God is always declaring new things (Isaiah 42:9), and it is up to us to be attuned to where God is moving, to notice the tentative sprouts of new life. God is the God of a new heaven and a new earth. God’s call to build and to plant is a call to trust that the uncertain future is in God’s hands. God may be calling us to build houses we won’t get the chance to live in, to plant seeds for a crop we won’t be around to harvest. Building and acting are acts of hope that good may still come in this broken world, that God is watching over our faithfulness, that in the divine economy nothing is wasted, that God will establish the work of our hands.
So, go, having been known and formed and consecrated and appointed before you were born by a God who loves you. Go, despite your unsuited-ness and your lack of qualifications and your trepidations. Go because God will put words in your mouth. Go because you are appointed over the nations. Go to pluck up and pull down. Go to destroy and to overthrow. Go to build and to plant.
Let us pray:
Sovereign and almighty Lord God,
we were yours before we were because
you have chosen us and called us for your purposes.
Forgive us for our qualms and unwillingness
to go wherever you send us and say whatever you command.
Make us into fearless prophets of your holy words;
give us the courage to be faithful to you.
Thank you that it depends on you far more than it does on us.
Before we got up this morning
and decided to come to church,
God was waiting for us,
to welcome us with grace.
When we are unsure of what to do;
when we falter before the next step,
we come to listen to God’s voice,
to learn from the One who teaches us
all we ever need to know.
When we are surrounded by cruelty and injustice;
when our fears cripple our souls,
God delivers us with steadfast love;
we are set free to be God’s sons and daughters.
Giving is not a casual act—it relates God’s work to our work. Peter writes: “as each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace, that God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” Let us give as people whose work is inextricably linked to God’s great works of creation, redemption and empowerment.
Having been welcomed with grace,
let us go out this day.
We will go to serve all of God’s children,
deciding to meet them where they are.
Having listened to God’s Word,
Let us go to share what we have learned.
We will go to stand with those who are uncertain about life,
to walk with those who have stumbled on their journey.
Having been set free by the Spirit
let us go to be sisters and brothers with all,
we will go to release those bound by cruelty and injustice,
to bring healing to those crippled by fears.