This African proverb might have been a better way to reassure the young Jeremiah that he
wasn’t too small to be a prophet. When he says, “I don’t know how to speak; I’m too young,” God basically says, “Don’t say that. Just go where I send you and say what I command you.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d be reassured. OK, God does get a little more considerate of Jeremiah’s feelings of inadequacy: “Don’t be afraid; I’ll be with you.” Jeremiah goes – and does become one of the greatest prophets of Israel.
That doesn’t mean he had an easy time of it. The Old Testament prophets were primarily concerned with interpreting historical events of their time in light of God’s purposes. The time in which Jeremiah lived was a time of political and religious upheaval. It had started about 300 years before his time.
In a nutshell: after the death of King Solomon around 930 BCE, the kingdom that his father, King David, had built, split into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrian empire in 722 BCE, and many of the people of Israel were taken into exile, never to return.
Jeremiah lived in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, which had narrowly escaped the Assyrian war machine. But freedom from foreign domination didn’t last. His prophecies came just before the fall of Judah to the Babylonian empire. So, most of Jeremiah’s work has to be seen in the context of the impending Babylonian invasion and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem and the temple around 586 BCE.
Now, you may be asking, “So what? What does this ancient history have to do with us now?” First, I’d remind us that just as the prophets of old spoke to and about the events of their day, so do prophets of today. Context is everything. Although we certainly can’t overlay a picture of the state of our world now onto Jeremiah’s world then. But we might find some wisdom for ourselves in his experiences and in his discernment of how God was speaking in those times. I think most of us would agree that ours is a time of political and religious, if not upheaval, certainly change. And God still calls prophets today to speak to and about the events of our day.
If that’s true, then the question is: who are the prophets today?
This answer to this has two parts. You know how as Lutherans we talk about saints with a capital ‘S’ and saints with a small ‘s’? We have the big-name saints, right, like St. Peter and St. Mary. And we also have all the rest of us – saints, not in the sense of being one of the superstars of faith, but of being both saint and sinner at the same time – named and claimed by God and made holy (saintly), even while we still are fallible human beings.
There are big-name prophets out there today. I’d include the Rev. William Barber, who’s been building a broad-based grassroots movement now for several decades. His most recent initiative is the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Building on the work of another modern-day prophet, the program is a revival of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign spearheaded by the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rev. Barber began by auditing systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, and our war economy since 1968, and then building state, local, non-partisan movements that are committed to shifting the moral narrative, building power, and challenging laws and policies that hurt the poor and threaten our democracy. One of the resolutions at our ELCA Churchwide Assembly to endorse the Poor People’s Campaign. While the Assembly didn’t adopt the resolution, they did approve a statement of support for the vision and goals of the Poor People’s Campaign that are in alignment with ELCA teachings.
There are others of these big prophetic voices. But what I really want to talk about are the small ones, the ones whose names we may or may not know, the ones who might even be you or me. Now, I can hear your thoughts of protestation from here. “Prophet? Nope, not me. I don’t know how to speak! I’m too young/old/shy/tired/busy/doubtful/ scared/ uneducated/intimidated/inadequate.” – in other words, “I’m too small.”
And those would all be perfectly understandable responses. Look at Jeremiah: “Not me, God. I don’t know how to speak! Besides, I’m too young!” We know how it turned out. All his protests aside, he realized he had something to say and he had to say it.
I recall a fellow seminary student in one of my first preaching classes. On our first day, the professor asked this question: Why preach? You can imagine some of our highfalutin theological ruminations. But one student succinctly responded, “How can I not?”
Sometimes, when a circumstance is thrust upon us, we just have to do or say something, even when we think we can’t. I was thinking this week about the late Maggie Kuhn, whose birthday was this past week. In 1970, she founded the Gray Panthers, still in existence as a force against ageism and other justice issues. What I always remember, though, is what she said about working for change:
Dare to stand before those you fear and speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.
She might have said the same thing my fellow student did when asked why she had taken up the cause: “How can I not?”
My spiritual director was talking a while back about the late Father Daniel Berrigan, famous for his anti-war protests, arrests and time in prison. She said that, despite his calm demeanor, he often suffered from anxiety before an action. What I did know is that Fr. Berrigan identified with the prophet Jeremiah. Like Jeremiah, he realized he had no choice. God called. How could he not act? He once said that he was motivated by “outraged love.”
I guess these are still big-name prophets. But it’s not hard to find the small ones, too. Like a woman named Bea, who came into a leadership training program designed to help low-income people learn to advocate for themselves and others. Bea was a single mom, a victim of domestic violence. Homeless, she lived on the streets with her child. She was eventually able to move into public housing, but couldn’t receive some services because state policy required a single mother to file for child support in order to be eligible. Bea refused, fearing that the man who had abused her and her child in the past would find them. But in this program, she began to feel inspired and empowered.
She learned about community organizing and ways of working toward systematic change. Soon, Bea found herself addressing City Council members in a meeting where they were discussing living wages for city contractors. She spoke eloquently about extending the living wage requirement to workers on city contracts. That night, City Council approved the measure. Empowered and encouraged, Bea now continues to speak out and is currently involved in a project addressing America’s wealth disparities. Before coming into her own, Bea might have responded to a call from God by saying, “Who me? Nope, no way. I don’t know how to speak! I’m too poor, too tired, too uneducated, too inadequate. In other words, “I’m too small.”
But she, like Jeremiah, learned: Even though we think small, God thinks large. We diminish ourselves, while God wants us to spread our wings.
Despite what you might know or think about spiritual author/speaker Marianne Williamson’s campaign for president, she does have something to say about this:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
I would add, “We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be prophetic?’ And I answer, “Who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world.” Jeremiah felt small. And he was called to a task bigger than himself. It’s no wonder he felt inadequate. The good news he discovered is that it wasn’t his task alone. It was God’s mission, and God would provide him with the words he would need to speak. And – most importantly – God promised to be with him in the midst of the struggle.
Of course, that didn’t make it any less of a struggle. Jeremiah’s message didn’t endear him to people. He was mocked and derided. He was deeply unpopular. Years later, he even tried to quit. He says in chapter 20, “I won’t mention God or speak in the name of YHWH anymore.” “But then,” he said, “it becomes like a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones. I grow weary holding it in; I cannot endure it.” So, in spite of the trouble he encountered, he couldn’t quit. The call of God was so strong that to deny it was to be consumed by fire from the inside. No matter what, he had to speak the word God gave him.
Jeremiah and other prophets reveal a part of life with God we’d probably rather not think about – the fact that God’s call might involve a risk, might even cost us things we hold dear.
Jesus speaks of the same uncomfortable truth:
Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Jeremiah’s call and his subsequent ministry illustrate the risk of discipleship. But they also testify to the possibilities of such discipleship.
We think small, God thinks large. We diminish ourselves; God wants us to spread our wings. This applies to people, communities, as well as congregations and denominations. What dreams are being stifled by fear in these places? Where is our sense of limitation, of thinking small thwarting new possibilities?
As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead states: Limitations are the womb of possibility.
The ELCA made some bold decisions at Churchwide Assembly two weeks ago. It would not be a stretch to call them prophetic:
– A declaration of apology to our siblings of African descent, with a call for accountability.
– A resolution declaring us a sanctuary church body.
– Approved support for the World Council of Church’s Thursdays in Black awareness movement for a world without rape and violence.
– Voted to commemorate June 17 as a day of repentance, in honor and remembrance of the martyrdom of the Emanuel 9, victims of the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
– Approved a declaration for inter-religious commitment.
– Adopted a new social statement, “Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Call to Action” and its implementing resolutions
I’ve already seen pushback, complaints, and other negativity about some or all of these actions. I’ve been responding to some comments on Facebook about “Faith, Sexism, and Justice.” As one of the framers of some of the implementing resolutions, I get pretty passionate about it and the fact that seven women accomplished some significant additions to this statement. I wrote a blog post about it on Friday, and I’ll admit that my finger hesitated over the publish button as I posted to the ELCA page.
But then I remembered Jeremiah, and Maggie Kuhn, and Dan Berrigan, and Bea. And I remembered the mosquito in the African proverb and decided to create a buzz.
I can make a difference. You can make a difference. We can make a difference together. It’s called discipleship. In the tradition of the prophets and in the name of Jesus. Amen
Jeremiah 1:4-10 Like many who experience such an encounter with God,Jeremiah at first demurred because of his youth. He doesn’t think he’s up to the task that God has called him to. We can relate! God responds to his fears, and ours, by saying: “I have been moving in your life from the very beginning. Your life is part of a larger story and I have imagined your vocation and your future. I’ve brought situations into your life and created opportunities for your growth. Your calling is not accidental; it is part of my vision for my people and their spiritual welfare.” When Jeremiah says ‘yes’ to God, a whole world of possibilities emerges. Our ‘yes’ too opens us to new and greater divine energies. It is written . . .
Now the word of YHWH came to me and said: “Before I formed you in the womb, I chose you. Before you were born, I dedicated you. I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
I said, “But Sovereign YHWH! I don’t know how to speak! I’m too young!”
But YHWH said, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ Now, go wherever I send you. And say whatever I command you. Do not fear anyone, for I am with you to protect you. It is YHWH who speaks.”
Then YHWH touched my mouth and said to me, “Look, I am putting my words in your mouth. This day I appoint you over nations and territories, to uproot and to tear down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”