Jeremiah 1:4-10 ~ Rev. Gabrielle Suedfeld ~ Northwood UC ~ August 21, 2022
In my rather aged computer, I have a whole section of templates – these are sort of fill in the blank documents for all occasions . Did you have to learn how to write a business letter, when you were in high school? There are rules, you know! Company heading at the top, then the date, then the address of the person you are writing to. The letter should begin with a polite greeting, Dear Sir or Madam, To whom it may concern.., The “body” of the letter should state, concisely – who you are, why you are writing, and any questions, or needs. Then a polite conclusion, and the signature. Sometimes there are references to copies being made. Ideally, this should be all on one page.
In this day and age, you can clic on a template, and get all this information. Fill in the blanks, and presto! Business letter done. You don’t have to take a class for this. You can get ideas for wedding invitations, company brochures, for sale signs, birthday cards and just about anything else. In colour, with borders, or logos. Fantastic! But did you know that in ancient times, there were specific rules also? Paul’s letters follow a definite pattern used in first century correspondence: Salutation – the name of the sender and the receiver, and a greeting. Prayer of thanksgiving. Body of the letter – information about his travels, answers to questions from a particular congregation, discussions about theology, grievances, etc. Introduction about the person carrying the letter. Closing remarks – a wish for peace, greetings to various people, Blessing.
There were rules about how to declare war, how to make a treaty, and how to covenant with God as an important part of the deal. So today, we come to the correct way to call a prophet: God contacts the person, followed by a dialogue: The person is hesitant, has objections, manufactures all sorts of excuses God doesn’t care. God gives an assurance of divine assistance – Don’t be afraid, I will be with you. There is a description of the ministry to be fulfilled. Sometimes, there are visions, dreams or symbolic gestures, often having to do with touching the mouth of the person called. See how easy it is? The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, telling him that God had always known him, before he was conceived, he was consecrated as a prophet to the nations. Jeremiah had a good excuse: “I don’t know how to speak, I am only a boy.” God wasn’t having any of that: “you shall go where I send you, you will speak whatever I command.” Then God reassures this young man: “Don’t be afraid of those people, I will be with you.” And then God touched Jeremiah’s mouth, and gave him his mission: to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant. Jeremiah was stuck. God doesn’t take no for an answer. You can argue all you want, in the end, God always wins. We may not realize it, but the call of God is a major theme throughout Scripture. Most of the time, it comes as a complete surprise. “Who? Me” is a common response. “you must be kidding! You’ve got the wrong number!” If this were happening today, we would look at an email message saying ”urgent! God calling. Immediate answer required” and I know I would press delete or send it to the spam file. But those called as prophets took the message seriously. Some tried to wiggle out of it, some moaned and groaned, some said they just weren’t able to comply, and a few, a very few, actually accept with grace.
Abraham was called to leave his country and his kindred and go to a place that God would show him. He went, willingly. Genesis does not record what Sarah thought about the whole thing. My guess is that she protested, loud and clear. “What do you man, just pack everything up and go? Do you even have a map? Do you know how much work it is to get everything together? Leave tomorrow morning! I don’t know why I put up with you!” Kevin B Smalls wrote in an article for Discipleship Ministries: “Jeremiah wept, Elijah ran and hid, Hosea was discouraged and fed up, Nehemiah left the comfort of his job” all knowing that this was going to be a difficult task. But, Smalls says: “to be a prophet is to stand, no matter what. Stand in fatigue. Stand in loss. Stand the conviction that God’s voice can shake the foundations and remind the people to turn from their ways. Stand.” (www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship-planning/prophet-margins/eleventh-Sunday-after-pentecost-yearC)
Jeremiah protests that he is too young, but lots of young people got called for very special, important work. David was the youngest of seven brothers, Samuel was a little child serving in the temple. His mother still came to visit him all the time, maybe to make sure he ate his vegetables. Mary, while not classed as a prophet, was a young girl, newly betrothed. What did she know about anything? And yet, her song of acceptance, humility is one of the most beautiful expressions of faith I can think of. Those who protest get no sympathy from God: “I never said you were qualified! I just said you are called. This is my idea. The power is mine. I call the shots, I give the instructions. All you have to do is obey. Trust me, I’ll be there for you. Get a move on.” Becoming a prophet means taking risks. Jeremiah got thrown in a pit, and almost died. Others were ignored, reviled, pushed away. The prophetic message in scripture is almost always the same: Get back to God’s laws or terrible things will happen. When this message is delivered to heads of state, it is very unpopular. And yet it is true. The laws of decency, kindness, generosity, justice, and even common sense, are important in the maintenance of a healthy society. When greed, desire for political power, ignorance and neglect, selfishness and lack of compassion become the norm, a society disintegrates, and is vulnerable to takeover by other nations. If any of this sounds familiar to you, maybe it is time to look at the message again, and see how it pertains to our world. Recognizing the call, submitting to God’s will, living in faithful obedience is hard to accomplish, especially in these days. Our world is two to three thousand years away from the ideals expressed in the Bible. Maybe the idea of God connecting with us directly, showing up as a burning bush that doesn’t burn, or a shadowy figure in the middle of the night, or a voice in the whirlwind, or an angel floating above on the clouds, is too much to ask for. Maybe God’s methods have changed. There are several important things to remember, today, and always: Each of us is called to something. Young, old, rich poor, whatever racial background, whatever sexual identity, whatever you think of as limitations, God has called you, God has given you purpose, and strength, and love. You are necessary for the healing of the world, for the continuation of creation, for the bringing in of the Kingdom. You are special. And don’t you forget it!
So many who felt called were from the fringes of society, outside the accepted power structures, But God sees us from the inside, and knows us through and through. God says to Jeremiah: “Do not say.’I am only a boy’” And God says to us:”..” Do not say I am only..“A girl, a housewife, a truck driver, a supermarket cashier, a busboy at McDonald’s, a cleaning lady, a refugee, a homeless person…”Do not say, I am a member of the LGBTQ2 community, I am in a wheelchair, I have medical problems, God won’t call me … God works with different criteria and does not make mistakes. God never gives up on us. The point is, that you are chosen, and called and blessed, not because of what you do but because you are God’s beloved children. You are not, and never will be an “only”. In 1948, a book Cry the Beloved Country was published. It is about South Africa and its struggles. In it a black village priest , Stephen Kumalo, goes to Johannesburg to answer the request of a friend, Rev. Msimangu, and in the process, searches for his son, who has been accused of murdering a white man. Msimangu supports Kumalo all the way, and at one point Kumalo thanks his friend and says “In all my days, I have known no one as you are.” Msimangu replies “I am not kind. I am a weak and sinful man, but God put his hands on me. That is all.” (Alan Paton, Cry the Beloved Country, Scribners, USA, Jonathan Cape, UK, 1948 ISBN 0224-605 75-X, UK ed no other information available, numerous editions.) That saying has stuck with me through all of my ministry. That is all. We are not perfect, and God has called us anyway.
When I was in ministry in Hazelton, there were two remarkable women from the village of Gitanmaax. Together, they would give presentations to communities to help them understand the Gitk’san way of life. One of them, Marie Wilson, was invited to offer theological reflection at BC conference, the year I was ordained in Terrace. There were three speakers, contemplating on the themes and readings of the meeting. Two of the speakers were ordained white people. Marie was last. She got up and said “I can’t talk like they do. I am only an old Indian grandmother…”and then she proceeded to knock our socks off with her wisdom. She was never an “only” anything. Her remarks have influenced me all these years, because I realized that I needed to work and speak and teach from the point of view of the ordinary and the everyday, tell stories from the viewpoint of the people I served, to bring God’s presence into focus. The other woman, Vi Smith, told me she had been called out by the village elders as a young girl, and told that she was to be a healer. She thought maybe they wanted her to become a nurse, but that is not what happened. .
Her call to healing was to be a bridge between two cultures, so that understanding and reconciliation could begin. Being called is scary, answering the call is an act of faith. We may be afraid of rejection, we may feel insecure about our personal strengths, we may be overwhelmed, or ashmed of personal faults. Nevertheless, we are all called. The world needs us - now - to tip the balance from anger to kindness, from poverty to comfort, from despair to hope. If not us, then whom shall God send? We are called out by name, we are asked to be a light, we have been filled with the Spirit. This week, give thanks for that call, this week, try to do your best.
This week, do the small things that make a difference to ordinary people, God’s people. A smile, a phone call, a contribution, an offer of help. As we gear up to start activities in church, in school, in community, as we continue to find new strengths and confidence after covid, maybe there is a new way for you to express your thanks. Maybe it is time to become involved in larger community or events.
Where are you being called, what changes can you make? We are not alone, we are God’s beloved family. We work together, and the world shifts. Living the prophetic life does not mean always going in the right direction. It does not mean always being positive, cheerful and perfectly faithful. It means losing your way, giving in to despair, getting angry and making mistakes. It means being human. And trusting God, and leaning on the Good News, and picking yourself up when you fall.
Listen, God is calling. Say Yes! And follow. The joy of the Kingdom is ahead.