The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (August 25, 2019)
Since late June on every Sunday except one we’ve read from some of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible. We’ve heard from the likes of Elijah and Elisha, Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah. I’ve enjoyed reading through these with you (and I hope that you have too) because I find that these ancient texts speak a relevant word into our contemporary life. They all speak God’s word into a time of massive upheaval. They deal with politics and war and injustice and chaos in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah and the empires that swirled around them centuries upon centuries ago, yet they might as well have been uttering their pronouncements after reading the headlines of the United States in 2019.
Today we’ll hear from the last one in this series, Jeremiah. It’s the end of the summer and we’ll turn to a different series beginning next Sunday, the first Sunday in September. This snippet from Jeremiah’s life comes from the beginning of his story, when he hears God calling him to prophetic ministry. Let’s listen for God’s call us in God’s call to him…
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me,
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.”
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; 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.”
“Nope! I’m not the one. Send somebody else!”
Those are essentially the first words that come out of a prophet’s mouth when God first calls them. It’s Biblical tradition, really. Think of Moses, for an early example. When God called him to march up to Pharaoh and demand liberation, “Let my people go” Moses offered a series of excuses. His first try: “But I’m a nobody.” His second: “But what if they don’t believe me or listen to me?” His third: “But I stutter. Have you considered my brother Aaron?” God meets each of these excuses with a firm response that essentially says, “Don’t be afraid. I’m with you. I’ll give you what you need. Now go!”
Another example, maybe more famous, is of Jonah. God calls him to prophesy to his enemies in the city of Nineveh, “Repent or Nineveh will be overthrown!” and what does he do? He runs like the wind, heads in the opposite direction of Nineveh on a boat, and later gets thrown off the boat, and then swallowed by a giant fish, and then spewed onto the beach. Jonah takes the ol’ prophetic refusal to the extreme.
Jeremiah pulls the age card: “I’m too young!” and God responds as God so often does, “Stop being afraid. I’m with you.” Actually, it’s more like: “Quit it with the excuses; do what you’re told.”
I don’t know if that’s where it comes from, but I’ve heard that in the Catholic Church, when the cardinals have met in their conclave in the Sistine Chapel and chosen the next Pope, his fellow cardinals go to him and say something to the effect of, “God has chosen you to be the Pope,” and the man is supposed to refuse three times before accepting.
Why is that, do you think? We could come up with a number of reasons. They were called to tell uncomfortable, provocative truths to people who didn’t want to hear it, generally people with a lot of power. They were committing themselves to a life on the edges of society (think of Elijah and his trip through the desert and then into the cave). The magnitude of the prophetic task necessitated that they didn’t soft-peddle God’s message; the situation called for harsh words and dramatic actions. Later in the Book of Jeremiah, he’s standing in front of a crowd of his own people, takes a clay pot in his hands, says “This represents Judah,” and then smashes it to bits, and says in effect, “This is mild compared to what God is going to do to you.” And things didn’t typically end well for prophets. How Isaiah, who we read from the last two weeks, died is too rated-R for the pulpit.
In the words of Frederick Buechner: “No prophet is on record as having asked for the job.” He also wrote, “The prophets were drunk on God, and in the presence of their terrible tipsiness, no one was ever comfortable. With a total lack of tact, they roared out against phoniness and corruption wherever they found them.” But I love this line of his the most: “There is no evidence to suggest that anyone ever asked a prophet home for supper more than once.”
How sure are we that we want to be prophetic? We say that. It’s written on our monthly newsletter: “We are the body of Christ called in the prophetic tradition to ‘do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.’” “Prophetic” is a word that’s volleyed about in the church, but when you hear after really mulling over these prophets in the Hebrew Bible—who they are, how God calls them, what their message is, how they have to convey it, what happens to them when they convey it—to cut and run seems like a legitimate response!
Jeremiah’s call is a tough one: 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.” That seems out of reach for most, if not all of us, doesn’t it? Our reluctance to God’s call to be prophetic doesn’t come from the sense that the task is daunting, but because it seems unrelatable. We’re centuries removed from these strange stories, but even with modern, more recent prophetic types, they seem more heroic to us. I’m thinking of the Dorothy Day, Rosa Parks, William Barber II types—activists, leaders of movements.
But here’s the thing: the prophetic call, for us, doesn’t always (or perhaps ever) happen on the “big stage.” All these prophets that we’ve been reading have boldly proclaimed God’s living word into the situation of entire countries and empires. That’s not our venue for prophecy. Our venues are more likely to be our local communities, or even smaller realms. Conference rooms. Parking lots. Dinner tables. Classrooms. Social media spaces. The prophetic task in those spaces is the same as Elijah, Hosea, Jermiah, and the rest: to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable.
Not just any truth. The task isn’t a flippant “Just tell it like it is.” It’s a specific, moral truth, when what’s happening in a given moment doesn’t match up with God’s will. As Eric Barreto put it:
Prophecy, we must remember, is not a synonym for prediction. Prophets are not prognosticators guessing at what the future holds. Prophets look at the world as it is and imagine its transformation through a God-infused imagination. What if violence and death were not the order of the day? What if compassion, not selfishness, reigned in our midst? What if we could all see ourselves and our neighbors as God sees us?
Telling the truth is hard, though, isn’t it? It’s difficult to be truthful, especially when the truth is inconvenient or disturbing or awkward. We want to be liked. We want to be accepted. We don’t want to “rock the boat.”
Probably the most ordinary example of a very necessary truth-telling, a subtle, confrontational truth-telling is at the end of a joke that relies on ignorance or just plain old hate. This is something people of any age can relate to. It’s inconvenient to stop someone short when them laughing is at the expense of someone else’s humanity. “That’s not funny” is often the most microscopically prophetic thing to say.
Even as I say the word “inconvenient,” I think about the most inconvenient truth of our time, to use the title of Al Gore’s film, the degradation of our planet. As we sit here, the Amazon burns. People do not want to tell the truth that our planet, our species, and thousands of others are under an increasingly urgent threat by our exploitation of the earth’s resources. It’s hard enough telling speaking the truth to the “powers and principalities” of fossil fuel companies and governments. It’s even harder to tell the truth to ourselves that our own consumption is a part of the problem.
When and how do we shirk God’s prophetic call to us by avoiding truth-telling? What truths do we avoid telling? What truths do avoid hearing?
The writer William Faulkner told a graduating high school class in Oxford, Mississippi in 1951:
So, never be afraid. Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion, against injustice and lying and greed. If you, not just you in this room tonight, but in all the thousands of other rooms like this one about the world today and tomorrow and next week, will do this, not as a class or classes, but as individuals, men and women, you will change the earth.
It all sounds quite daunting. But here’s another thing about truth-telling, about speaking prophetically in whatever setting: it is God who gives us the words. The same one who knew us and loved us before our birth, the same one who set us to the task in the first place, is with us in the midst of our fears and our doubts. Despite our doubts and fears, the same one who sends us equips us with faith and bravery for the moment. Thanks be to God!