A sermon preached at First United Methodist Church, Duluth MN
by MaryAnne Korsch
August 21, 2016
Text: Jeremiah 1:4-10
Friends, please pray with me: Almighty and Eternal God, we come to this time of worship to learn and grow in our faith. We come to support one another as we grow together. Hold us tenderly in this time. Speak to our hearts, and inspire us to become more of who you are calling us to be, as individuals and as a church. We ask these things in the name of Jesus your son, Amen.
In this congregation, most of our sermons are based on the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, a three-year rotation of Scripture passages that focus each week on an Old and New Testament selection, a Psalm, and a section of one of the Epistles. Last week, Kevin Walsh used the Epistle reading from the book of Hebrews to challenge us as we identify places where we find hope in today’s complicated world. Prior to that, Pastor David used the Gospel of Luke as the basis for his sermons over several weeks. And this morning, I’m breaking with tradition to move backwards in time, to take a closer look at the Old Testament reading from the book of Jeremiah, because I think it helps us to hone in on a particularly pertinent question during this time of transition to new leadership, as well as raises an important topic for our own personal reflection.
Jeremiah was a prophet to the country of Judah during the turbulent times of the late seventh century and the early sixth century BCE. Most of his prophetic career took place in Jerusalem, the capital city of the southern kingdom, even though his home village was in the northern kingdom. He lived to witness the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BCE and experienced tremendous personal turmoil and rejection throughout his life and ministry. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
In today’s passage, we hear about Jeremiah’s call into service, which took place when he was quite young. It’s found in the Old Testament section of your red pew Bibles on page 698 if you’d like to follow along – Jeremiah Chapter 1, verses 4 through 10. As you listen or read along, pay special attention to the verbs – what is Jeremiah called to do?
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.”
At first glance, there is something deeply familiar and comforting about parts of this passage. It reminds us that we are intimately known and claimed by God, right from the very beginning. Many of us rely heavily on this claim, heard also in Psalm 139: For you created my inmost being, you knit me together in my mother’s womb… My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. (verses 13, 15b) We hear these words and know of God’s deep and abiding love for us. For Jeremiah, he, too, was assured of God’s presence – that he had been consecrated by God for a special purpose even before his birth.
Being a prophet, though, was not an easy job in Jeremiah’s day, and it certainly isn’t easy today. True prophets speak truth to power – in the words of Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann, they “speak against the data.” Prophets are charged with speaking the often displeasing word, the upsetting and foreboding word that will be proven true, but only eventually, only over time. At some level, prophets realize that they are answering a call which, at least in the short term, will be unwelcome and could very well put them in danger.
Throughout my life I have often wished that God would provide me with a road map, so that I might be able to discern exactly what I am called to BE and DO for the purposes of God’s Kingdom. We may all feel more comfortable with answering God’s call if that call felt crystal clear to us, outlining expectations and strategies, giving us pointers about how to proceed when the going gets rough. Jeremiah’s call experience, as we read in this passage, was pretty clear. Jeremiah hears: “BEFORE I FORMED YOU IN THE WOMB I KNEW YOU… I APPOINTED YOU A PROPHET TO THE NATIONS.” Jeremiah’s charge is stated without ambiguity… “be a prophet.” Yet given what I know about the prophet’s call, I’m not always enthusiastically applying for that job!
No surprise, then, that when God summons a prophet, the prophet characteristically demurs, or even flees. You all remember the story of Jonah; when he was commanded to go to Ninevah, he hightailed it in the exact opposite direction, and ended up in Tarshish. Jeremiah’s response was certainly aligned with this pattern; he says, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” In essence, he asks, “Who, ME?” He wonders if maybe God has gotten something just a teensy bit mixed up… surely God must mean someone else… someone older, more experienced, more convincing, more prepared. Someone much more able to do the job. Not me.
This reminds me of God’s conversation with Moses, in the early chapters of the book of Exodus. It’s a familiar story… Moses was also called by God for a specific purpose… remember the burning bush? God called to Moses from the burning bush, appointing him to go to Pharaoh to free the Jews. And Moses’ response? He questions God four times. “What if they don’t believe me?” he asks God. “I’m not eloquent, I’m slow of speech and tongue, pick someone else!”
So it’s a familiar pattern – God calls, and our very human reply is, “Who, me?” We somehow cannot fathom that the God of the Universe really has us in mind for something. We figure out excuse after excuse, reason after reason, to convince ourselves that we’re not exactly the right person for the job. We cannot conceive that our flaws and idiosyncrasies might be somehow integral to God’s plans. We may fear the repercussions. We see ourselves, in all our imperfections, and wonder if God is really desperate enough to knock on our door and call us into our purpose.
I have come to believe that answering God’s call is challenging, at least in part, because of our beliefs about our own imperfections. We protest because we feel inadequate. We object because we believe that our broken places disqualify us from meaningful service. We fear that we might make a mess of things. We say the same things prophets of old have said: “I’m not wise. I’m not brave enough. I’m the wrong age. I’m tired. I just can’t do it, I’m completely unqualified. I’m broken. Pick someone else.”
Friends, there is another way to look at this dilemma.
Picture in your mind’s eye a piece of pottery, maybe a plate or a bowl, that has been damaged. Where it was once whole, glazed, shiny, and ready for special placement on a table, it is now broken in two or more distinct pieces. Neither piece on its own can serve its original function. Perhaps it could be mended, but the deep crack will be visible. Now what?
Kintsugi is the ages-old Japanese art of “golden joinery.” The artist takes a broken ceramic piece and mends it by filling the cracks with resin mixed with gold dust, turning the ugly breaks into beautiful fixes. Adding the gold to the adhesive resin emphasizes the cracks, and the item is made more beautiful because of being broken.
Several months ago I attended a concert at Sacred Heart Church given by Minnesota native Peter Mayer. On this cold winter evening he played and sang a song called “Japanese Bowl” where he describes the mending process and reminds the listener that our broken places do not disqualify us from future usefulness. At the time I had never heard of the Japanese art of Kintsugi, but in the intervening months I have learned to love the concept of being more beautiful because of being broken. Let’s listen:
Peter Meyer: Japanese Bowl
Our broken places may actually make us MORE qualified to answer God’s call. And after all, who is doing the calling? Yes, this Scripture passage is found in the book about Jeremiah, and it describes Jeremiah’s experience as being called. Jeremiah is asked to do some hard work – he’s commanded – and here are those verbs again – to GO, to SPEAK, to PLUCK UP, to PULL DOWN, to DESTROY, to OVERTHROW, to BUILD, and to PLANT.
All of that was hard work for him in his day, and those commands can be daunting for us when we hear God’s call to us. And yet, we must always remember that in the end, the call isn’t about us, at least not entirely. We are called, individually and as a church, by a God who has proven, again and again, that we are not alone. We are called by the God who makes a way where there is no way… by the God who has always called imperfect people…by the God who remains faithful and sustains us when we falter… by the God who walked among us as one of us, in the person of Jesus…by the God who uses beautiful gold resin to mend us in our cracked places, who assures us that we are capable even in our brokenness… maybe even especially in our brokenness.
Knock knock. Where are you being called? Where are WE being called as a church? May we, in this time of transition, be brave enough to dream big dreams, to actively seek God’s direction individually and collectively, as we move forward to be part of God’s Big Project on Earth. Amen.
 Bruggemann, W. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony; Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2005, orig. 1997). P. 76.