I probably should have entitled this sermon something like, “Itching Ears and Open Hearts,” because I think each of the lectionary texts this week shows deeper interest in the condition of the human heart than the state of our ears. I rarely try to weave all the texts for a given week into one sermon, but these four texts seem to invite it.
To begin with, Psalm 119, which is a kind of love song or hymn to God’s law is much less concerned with the letter of that law than its spirit. The section chosen for today begins, “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long.” Now I don’t know about you but I don’t generally think of the law as something to love. It will take some time and effort to understand the 17 ballot measures that may or may not become law on November 8, but I don’t plan to spend all of the next 24 days meditating on them, though I may have more to say about them between now and November 8. I’ve already grown so tired and disgusted with the overgrown and misleading advertising for the various measures that I’ve taken to muting all political ads as soon as they appear on my television screen.
Have you ever been asked to do something you did NOT want to do but somehow you knew it was the right thing to do, so you did it anyway? I can think of some obvious illustrations such as helping your parents with the chores when you want to be playing or keeping curfew on a date night or studying for that exam when you’d rather be out with your friends or taking responsibility when you could just as easily shift the blame to someone else. Can you think of examples to add to the list? Of course, we know that everyone does not always step up to do the right thing. We can probably remember a time or two when we ourselves failed.
On a bigger, deeper, more challenging scale, this is the story of Jeremiah. To quote my father, “He was born in the last waning days of the Jewish kingdom and was destined to live see it extinguished as a political entity. He was called into the prophetic ministry during the days of King Josiah, the last of the good kings of the kingdom of Judah. It was during this time that Josiah endeavored to reform the nation but evidently his efforts at reformation were rather shallow and called forth statements from Jeremiah…” After Josiah was killed by Egyptians, he was succeeded briefly by his sons Jehoahaz and Jehoiakim, and grandson, Jehoiachin, and finally by Zedekiah, whose “reign came to a bitter end in the terrible fall and destruction of Jerusalem [to Babylon] in 586 B.C., bringing to a close the Kingdom of Judah and the great theocratic experiment” (Randle R. Mixon, Sr., “Jeremiah’s Concept of Sin,” Master’s Thesis, Central Baptist Seminary, Kansas City, KS, May 1940, pp. 1-2).
As a very young man Jeremiah was tapped by God to proclaim to the people of Judah the fate that awaited them if they did not repent and return to the God of their covenant. The problem was that the people believed they had everything all worked out. They had their political and religious strategies in place and Jeremiah was an embarrassing disruption to it all.
The story begins in the first chapter as the prophet recounts it. “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.’” I’m not sure that 18 year old Jeremiah jumps for joy at this news. It is an awesome, perhaps terrifying thing to be called by the living God.
Jeremiah’s sensible response is, “’Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’” Surely there is some mistake here. God cannot possibly want me to speak for God. I have neither the gift nor the experience. A prophet to the nations? Why, I’ve never been outside the little village of Anathoth.
God is not to be dissuaded. “…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…[so] says the Lord.’” The boy is trapped. How can he, the son of a priestly family, turn his back on such a promise? To make things worse, the boy says, “…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’” (Jeremiah 1:4-10). What is the lad to do? The die is cast. He has been chosen and, reluctant as he might be to serve, he knows in his bones it is what he must do.
How often is it so? How many stories have we heard? When might this have been your story or mine? God calls – sometimes with a blinding flash of light, sometimes in the roar of silence, sometimes in the need that appears before us, sometimes in the struggle to find our way. We remember Jonah, another called to prophecy, who turned and ran the other way, only to experience the dire consequences and finally yield to the inexorable call. And Moses who protested his lack of eloquence, loathe to leave the quiet comfort of herding sheep for the impossible task of herding the children of Israel. Saul has to be knocked off his horse and blinded before he can see the hand of God moving in his life. Others like Samuel and Mary and a group of Galilean fishermen follow swiftly and eagerly, though they have little clue as to what lies ahead.
Do you know what it feels like when the fire burns within, calling us into deeper relationship and higher service with the living God? How have you responded? How are you responding? How will you respond? In this season of Pentecost, think of those first disciples in the locked room. They wanted to remain faithful but they felt lost in the moment without Jesus in front, leading them along. Then it came, a whirling wind with tongues of flame, touching each of them, drawing them inexorably into the in-breaking reign of God. They couldn’t keep quiet. They couldn’t stay still. They were up and out the door, proclaiming the love of Christ and the reign of God in the power of the Spirit. However reluctant they might have been if they had stopped to think about it, the wonder of the holy touch swept them along and their witness changed the lives of thousands that day.
But things were much more difficult for poor old Jeremiah. His was that proverbial voice, crying in the wilderness. No one was listening, and when they did they definitely did not want to hear what he had to say. His word went against all they knew and understood of how Yahweh operated in the world. Or was it how they wanted Yahweh to work on behalf of their own assumptions and expectations? Jeremiah’s word went against conventional wisdom for a small nation trying to survive amid the machinations of super powers. His word was uncomfortable and disruptive. They did all they could to discredit him, to silence him. Even his so-called friends wanted him to keep quiet and just get along with the civil and religious leaders.
Jeremiah’s story makes me think of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was thrust onto a large stage at a young age. Whether he wanted all the attention or not, it seemed without doubt that for such a time God had called him into the limelight. He spoke the truth in clear and eloquent language for which he was persecuted by his enemies and harassed by those who should have been his friends. His “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” was addressed to secure and well-heeled clergy who urged to him to wait, though the fire was burning within him – and, at the same time, threatened to burn their own cities.
Then, just when he had gained a modicum of respect from some of the crowd, he insisted on proclaiming that the reign of God was not only about civil rights, it also included economic justice for all and an end to war, specifically the one in Vietnam. Again, he was vilified for not telling people what they wanted to hear and eventually he was assassinated.
And Daniel Berrigan, whose powerful poetic reframing of Jeremiah’s lament we heard this morning, endured ridicule, scorn and imprisonment for speaking out against that same war in Vietnam as well as for a world rooted in peace and justice. For some the fire within burns so hotly that it is impossible to stay still and keep silent.
This text from Jeremiah is the last of a series of six laments in which he cries out over the pain and suffering caused by God’s awful demands on his life. He seems to chastise God. In the NRSV it says he accuses God of “enticing” him into an impossible position. In other translations, the word is “deceive.” God, you deceived me into thinking this prophecy business was much more promising than it is. “I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’” This is the word God has given him to speak, a harsh word about the consequences Judah is to face for turning its back on Yahweh and the covenant.
He continues, “…the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.” That is, he is ill-received by everyone, even his so-called friends. He’d like to give it all up, but “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” When the fire burns within, what else can you do? You have to keep on; it becomes essential to who you are.
Terence Fretheim has written that “Laments are a God-given way for us to make a situation more open for God, to give God more room to work in our lives” (Terence E. Fretheim, “Commentary on Jeremiah 20:7-13,” June 22, 2014, workingpreacher.org). But let me share a different kind of story. Ronny Lanier died recently at 95. West coast Baptists may not be familiar with her, but she was beloved by American Baptists in the northeast, especially Massachusetts. Ronny was a woman of color who answered God’s call to ministry at a time when conventional wisdom assumed ministers were men and in a largely white denomination. A graduate of Baptist, Gordon College, she would tell the tale of the college administrator who suggested that “it might be better” if she did not appear at a college function. Eventually though the school would embrace her as an honored alumna.
Her friend, Bob Fitzgerald wrote in the Boston Herald,
“Ronny’s faith was like a fire in her bones.
‘Good morning!’ she’d say, calling at 7 to share some tidbit of news. ‘The sun’s out, the sky is blue; isn’t our Lord wonderful?’
‘Ronny,’ a groggy voice would reply. ‘Wouldn’t He be just as wonderful if you called at noon?’
And she would laugh uproariously.”
He concludes, “As years, then decades, rolled along, she would tell friends she was determined to burn out, not rust out, and that’s exactly what she did…” (Bob Fitzgerald, “Upbeat Preacher a Treasure and a Miracle,” Boston Herald, June 15, 2014).
So whether lament or affirmation, when the fire burns within, one cannot keep silent or stay still. As Jeremiah and Ronny both knew, whether the day is grim or sunny, whether we voice lament or positivity, “We can be confident that God always has our best interests at heart and will work with our prayers and other factors to create the best possible future” (as Terence Fretheim affirms) (op. cit.). When the fire burns within our path is likely to be difficult and challenging but as inexorable as is the call so inevitable is the reality that the way leads home and God goes with us all the way. “O Lord of hosts, you test the righteous, you see the heart and the mind…to you I have committed my cause. Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord!” Amen.