Sermon Briefs: Jeremiah 1:4-10
Preached during a "sending" ceremony for Roman Catholic missionaries, Walter Burghardt's sermon, Even So I Send You, focuses on the single word of Jeremiah 1:7, "send." Burghardt begins by looking at the word in its biblical context: Who is it that is sent? It is the whole Church that is sent. Thus, the "sending" ceremony at its most radical is baptism, so that every one baptized into Christ is on mission.
But what is the sending about? Surely proclamation: "Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again." Yet, how does this word become not just an individualistic word but that of the people of God? The Roman Catholic understanding of the Church as "the universal sacrament of salvation" says that the community of Christ is a sign and of a special kind. The Church as sacrament tells where God's saving love in Christ is to be found. But the sign does not simply point elsewhere; the Church incarnates that love so that it sensed and touched.
The Church, however, can be such a sign only if Christians are such signs. This leads Burghardt to question the psyche of the sent: What kind of Christian ought he or she be? He suggests three graces.
First, a faith-full trust. Jeremiah's call reminds us that the one who sends is God. If we are sensitive to his whisperings, it is God's words we speak. And, when faced with uncertainty and danger, we need not be afraid, for God is with us.
Second, understanding. Not in terms of knowledge, but in a sense of empathy--like that of Jesus who called to the crowd "who touched me?" (Mk 5:30-31) Here is a sensitivity which, when the one who is sent encounters an alien culture, discerns the presence of God already there and the image of God's own Son in the lives of the people.
Third, joy. Burghardt is persuaded that the most effective sign the Church can raise to unbelievers is joy in believing. He issues only one mandate to the "sent." It is the charge of St. Paul: "Rejoice in the Lord al ways! Again I will say, Rejoice!" (Phil 4:4).1
Phyllis Trible's sermon, The Opportunity of Loneliness, was preached as part of a service of ordination. Trible describes Jeremiah's set-apartness as a terrible loneliness. Loneliness, however, is not unique to Jeremiah. It is experienced by uprooted Abraham and Sarah. Ruth knows loneliness as she breaks with her history, and chooses a foreign people and God. Jesus, set apart on a cross and overcome by loneliness cries out, "My God, my God why has thou forsaken me?"
Trible places the ordinand, a female, in this company. She, too, will experience the loneliness which comes in being set apart. For her youth and her sex, she will be isolated, alienated, and objectified.
But, beware, preaches Trible. She sees Jeremiah's response, "Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth" (1:6) as an exercise in self-centeredness. She finds the disease of ego in others set apart: Moses complaining, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh"; Elijah at once boasting and lamenting, "I am the only faithful one left."
But faith answers the egocentrism of loneliness: "Do not say, `I am only a youth'" (1:7). The call is for Jeremiah to lay down his ego. The words to Jeremiah echo those of Jesus: "If anyone would come after me, let that one die to self."
Ministry is not for self-expression. Being set apart is not an occasion for self-pity or self-respect. We go where sent, speak that commanded, doing not our will ("Do not say, I am...'") or that of others ("Be not afraid of them"), but the will of God who has called us and sustains us. Moving beyond self, one finds liberation.
Faith, then, offers loneliness and set-apartness the opportunity to rest in another. Abraham and Sarah are gifted with land. Ruth discovers providence. Elijah is nourished by silence. Our Lord places his Spirit in the care of a loving Father. Letting go of his claims, Jeremiah finds deliverance.2
Before, by Eugene Peterson, picks up the theme of getting beyond one's self. Knowing that to be human is to have a history, we are frustrated to find so little record of Jeremiah's background. But we are told three things--things which reveal more of God than of Jeremiah (1:5).
One, before Jeremiah knew God, God knew Jeremiah. And for us all, before we know, we are known. Peterson gives the practical application, that is, appropriate existence begins not with self-awareness but an awareness of God who knows us and reveals authentic life. We are part of his story.
Two, before his birth Jeremiah was set apart to do God's work. This calling gave Jeremiah spiritual shape even before he was biologically formed. Is this not God's way with us all? Long before we are good for anything, God determines that we are good for what God is doing.
Three, Jeremiah was appointed--literally "given" to the nations. Jeremiah objects, but generosity is God's nature. He makes no exception. All of us are given by God for others.3
W. Sibley Towner's sermon, Honoring Our Prophets, rises out of concern for the Church's treatment of her contemporary prophets (cf. Mt 23:37). First, he clarifies what prophets are, beginning with Jeremiah's call and inner conviction of having been commissioned by God to bring a message to his contemporaries. To this call there is the prophetic objection, which Towner validates, for to speak the truth is dangerous. But crucial to prophetic effectiveness is the divine reassurance. A prophet can survive and persist in his or her calling if there is, as Abraham Herschel says, "fellowship with the feelings of God."
Concerning the prophetic task, Towner understands today's prophets as called to guide and mold human will into the contours of God's kingdom (Jer 1:9-10). They are to lead believers in supporting that which Israel's prophets advocated: Justice, the revealing of idolatry, and the hope of God's final victory.
Cherish our prophets, says Towner, who concludes quoting Numbers 12:29, "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets."4
Joseph Glaze Richmond, Virginia
1. Walter J. Burghardt, "Even So I Send You," Still Proclaiming Your Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), pp. 219-225. 2. Phyllis Trible, "The Opportunity of Loneliness," Women and the Word: Sermons, ed., Helen Gary Crotwell (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), pp. 70-75. 3. Eugene H. Peterson, "Before," Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1983), pp. 33-44. 4. W. Sibley Towner, "Honoring Our Prophets," The Christian Ministry (July-August 1990), pp. 24-26.