Morning Worship – Sunday, August 26, 2007

Not Just for Writers and Prophets
Jeremiah 1: 4-10
Wesley Memorial UMC

Whenever I get to a place where I am unsure of the rules and where there is no one around to model behavior for me, I think of Alice Walker. Whenever I have to make a decision between turning back and giving up versus forging ahead into unknown territory with no guide, I think of Alice Walker. I am not always pleased to have Alice Walker come to mind at these pivotal moments because I know then what I’m in for.
Alice Walker, writer of The Color Purple, says that she became a writer because she couldn’t find the books she wanted to read. At the time she was growing up, the established literary canon didn’t have much in the way of self-recognition to offer an African-American girl from the South. Walker craved characters she could relate to and she ended up writing them herself.
When I first read Walker’s essay in which she describes this dilemma, I was thankful. Thankful to see I wasn’t the only one who’d gotten to such a lonely place in the road. Thankful for her example of how to keep going. But there are times when I am tired and want an easier path and I’m sick of being the first one to get to the overgrown part of the path with my machete. There are times when I think Alice Walker! as if not knowing her story would have made mine easier.
Annie Dillard, in her book called The Writing Life, asks why it is we never find anything written about those odd ideas we have and keep to ourselves or those things that fascinate us beyond reason. Isn’t anyone else out there thinking these things? Her task in the book is to shed light on the mysterious creative process of writing, to encourage people who feel called to a life of words and nuance and long nights clicking or scribbling away. Like Walker, she says we never find those books we are looking for because it is up to us to write them. But it isn’t just up to us because we want to read them; it is up to us, she claims, because it’s the very reason we’re here. She says, “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment” (p. 68). This raises the stakes a bit.

“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” (Jer. 1: 5). That’s all well and good for Jeremiah, right? There are a lot of curious notions and miraculous events in the Bible and even when we believe they happened exactly as written, we don’t really go around expecting the same thing in our own lives. Do we? () I can go along with that when it comes to Mary’s virgin birth or Noah’s ark, but I don’t think we get a pass when it comes to Jeremiah. “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.” That sounds like it could have happened to us – could be happening to us. That sounds like a call to discipleship. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.
I can hear the wheels of your brains now, Wait a minute, here! I’m no prophet! And I don’t like to write, either! How long is this sermon going to be anyway – doesn’t she know we students have more orientation sessions to go to this afternoon? This is just what Jeremiah was thinking (except the orientation part). When God comes out with this audacious statement – “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.” – when God says this, Jeremiah responds, “Ah, Lord God! () Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
But I’m only a boy! God gets this response all the time. But I’m only a virgin, a fisherman, a tax collector, a shepherd (Lk. 1:26-56; Mt. 4:18-22; Mt. 9:9; Lk. 2:8-19). I can’t speak to Israel because I stutter (Ex. 2:23-4:17). Ha! Am I supposed to have a baby at my age? (Gen. 18:12). But I don’t want to go to Nineveh (Jon. 1:3)! Disputing God’s call is par for the biblical course. God is frequently making audacious statements like the one Jeremiah hears and then God is just as often waiting out the protests. It seems that more often than not, God’s call is met with overwhelming feelings of inadequacy or incapacity. God has the wrong gal, the wrong guy. I’m not cut out for this mission. But this doesn’t just sound like biblical whining and protestation. We’ve heard it; we’ve said it. Ah, God! But I’m only a boy, a girl, a college student, a retiree, an engineer, a Southerner, a photographer, a sister, a grandchild, a first year.
We somehow seem to have latched onto the notion that God’s call is interrupting our “normal” lives. What a notion! There’s nothing normal about our lives and there never has been. “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.” For Jeremiah and for us, there has never been a moment in our whole lives – womb to death and beyond – that God isn’t knowing and forming us. God’s call is not interrupting a sane and normal life we’ve built for ourselves. It’s the echo of the first time God said your name, saw who you were, before you were even microscopically visible. Before I was born, before my parents gave me a name, before I decided I like purple and chocolate. Before we knew God, God knew us. We are known and formed to live out the reverberations of that first call. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment. ( ) It’s the first call that’s the doozy.

In the movie The Matrix I kept chuckling. I don’t think the audience was meant to snicker, but I couldn’t help it. I felt in on the joke. In The Matrix the “good guys” have figured out that the world they’ve been living in is only a computer-generated screen for true reality. With the help of a John the Baptist character they learn to see the world as it truly is, and this band of visionaries take on the “bad guys” who are pulling the cyber wool over the eyes of the world. If you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve probably seen ads for it with Keanu Reeves slicked down in shades and yards of black leather. He and the band of rebels look like hellions; they’re bad. Whenever they leave reality to go back into the unreal Matrix to fight the bad guys, they are slicked down, leathered up, tough fighters with attitude. When they are in non-Matrix reality, they look homeless. They eat food that can only be described as gruel, their clothes are dirty and torn, their hair isn’t coiffed. What made me laugh is that Laurence Fishburne’s John the Baptist character tells Keanu Reeves that the way they look in the Matrix is their self-perception, the way they want to look. The Matrix is all too obliging. I laughed because on screen they look hip and cool in the Matrix but it’s all a mind game played on them and one they play into. They really look like gruel-eating drifters, but they psyche themselves up with mind costumes. Every time I saw the slow motion camera work and choreographed fight scenes and the ever-present leather I giggled because it’s all in their minds. Until they first wake up out of the Matrix, they don’t know what earth and they themselves actually look like. They don’t know what their lives are.
We might not be wearing leather and doing Asian-style fighting in mid-air, but we think we know the color and texture and shape of our lives. We keeping forgetting that we are drifters who God claimed before our births. Just like Keanu and friends, the fancy clothes and well-preserved images we have of ourselves and our ideas about what our lives should look like don’t say anything about who we really are. “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.” God’s call is not interrupting real life, it is real life.
Maybe you’re still wondering about the whole prophet thing. Good thought. I’m claiming that this call isn’t just for Jeremiah but for all of us. Are we all supposed to be prophets? No. And yes.
Here’s something else writers and prophets have in common. They can come off as kind of eccentric. They see things that we don’t and they don’t seem to mind that we notice how they don’t fit in. Balzac reportedly drank over 90 cups of coffee a day. At the edge of his garden, George Bernard Shaw built a writing hut on a large lazy Susan contraption so that he could rotate it with the sun, to always have natural light pouring in no matter the time of day. Emily Dickinson rarely left her home. Jack London rigged his alarm clock to drop a heavy weight on his head so he wouldn’t oversleep. Israel’s prophets undertook the unwelcome task of righting the community, reminding them when they forgot and reprimanding them when they flagrantly ignored God’s commandments. It’s hard to be a popular prophet. It’s hard to sit in a room with only your thoughts and a burning urge to get them on paper. Neither profession is the type you’d take up if you had any choice in the matter. It’s a different thing altogether if “you were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”
When Jeremiah protests that he doesn’t know how to speak, God reaches out to touch his mouth and says, “Now I have put my words in your mouth” (v. 9). And God says something else important while sending Jeremiah on his way, “Do not be afraid…for I am with you to deliver you” (v.8).
It takes self-confidence to be eccentric. Maybe this writerly, prophet-like self-confidence – literally, “with faith in oneself” – comes from that singleness of purpose, from knowing yourself the way God knows you, from having the faith in yourself that God has in you. “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.” Maybe the eccentricities come with the territory. Maybe that’s what life looks like when the Word of God breaks in. Maybe that’s what our lives are meant to look like. God doesn’t call Jeremiah to be a prophet alone in the desert. God doesn’t ask Jeremiah to speak in hushed tones for only Israel to hear. God sends Jeremiah to speak to nations and kingdoms. And God promises to give him the words and to go along with him.
When you’re standing on that kind of promise, you’re bound to look a little odd in this world. As the body of Christ we make an impression: kooks and eccentrics of all sorts bending our lives to the shape of God’s Word and refusing to keep it to ourselves. We who are known, formed, and consecrated are appointed to “pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” for God in the world (v.10).
See if you can hear God calling. Listen for the echoes of the time when God first knew you and formed you and consecrated you. Throw off the leather and shades and join us drifters! This crazy, life-giving call is not just for writers and prophets. It’s for each of us. “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”
Thanks be to God!

© 2007 Deborah E. Lewis