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Focus Text: Jeremiah 1: 4-10
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.”
In the opening of the book of Jeremiah, the reader is introduced to the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet” because so much of his book is painful to read. In this passage about Jeremiah’s calling, we learn that God appointed Jeremiah to be a prophet even before he was born. Jeremiah, however, expresses his own insecurities in this role, saying that he “doesn’t know how to speak” and he is “only a boy.” He knows that as a prophet he will have to preach great suffering for his people, and he will suffer for it. God responds to Jeremiah’s protests saying, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” Jeremiah was not willing to speak because he was “afraid of them,” and specifically he was afraid of being rejected because as a prophet he is the bearer of pain to his people. None of us wants to be rejected in our ministry (and by ministry I am referring to any way that we serve God and others). If we are going to obey God’s call, then we must obey God’s command not to be afraid. Furthermore, we must not reject or shut out those who are different from us—those who have different roles, jobs, thoughts, ideas, and beliefs.
We are called to preach the Gospel—even when it’s hard. And in being called to preach, we are also called to listen. We need to listen to the outsider. We need to hear the stories of the other, the experiences that we have yet to experience. We need to listen and, by listening, also expand our own world and broaden our own experience. For in listening we show that we do believe in the God who makes room for the outsider, and we demonstrate welcome and hospitality, opening ourselves up to encounter those of different backgrounds, faiths, opinions and cultures. As Christians we are called to listen, speak, and live the truth of Jesus Christ, who is calling us and drawing us all – our family, our friends, our enemies, our neighbors, and strangers – to Himself.
Scriptural Commentary on Jeremiah 1: 4-10
For I am Only…
By Rev. Amanda Hendler-Voss, Land of the Sky UCC, Asheville
In the week running up to Father’s Day, the world felt dangerously askew. The previous Sunday, on my way to church, I heard the breaking news out of Orlando that a mass shooting had taken place on the Latinx night at a local gay club. The details were still emerging. And while we lifted up this unfolding tragedy which felt eerily familiar, like an inescapable loop, not one of us began to truly process the loss of life until later. And though our city held multiple vigils attended by members of our congregation, by mid-week weary voices were rising to the top of my Gmail feed. Voices that named the pain, righteous anger, deep grief, and raw vulnerability faced by LGBTQ+ folk in the south in the wake of the Orlando massacre. One wrote, “It surfaces what we have been working through our whole lives—marginalization and privilege, oppression and power.” A request was made that we toss our planning for Sunday’s service to the wind and create a service of lament and healing.
And so we did. Candles were lit for each life tragically cut short. We offered a slideshow of the gentle fathers in our midst who were more than willing to cede their special day for the purposes of greater healing. Voices quavered as they spoke the names of the dead as their Spanish-speaking families might have. Healing stations offered opportunities for intercessory prayer, lighting votive candles, releasing burdens, casting stones into water, remembering our baptism, penning lamentations, and anointing our hands for the work of justice. Our musicians dug deep to offer music that was soulful and exquisite, music that led us from the depths of despair to a subversive joy. Then we lit one final candle, for a man we refused to hate despite his horrific act. As our sanctuary transfigured into a refuge place, we centered the LGBTQ+ members and friends, inviting them to the very center, and laying hands of blessing on them. And in the music that broke out—a plaintive strain of blues followed by a defiant, collective singing—one in our midst stood and began the slow steps of a beautiful, ridiculous dance that brought forth smiles. This dance created the safety for all of us to rise to our feet and dance our resistance back out into the world.
When the prophet Jeremiah protests, “Truly, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy,” he gives voice to the language of internalized oppression—that sin-sick chorus of voices saying some of us don’t matter that inundates us until it becomes nearly synonymous with our self-understanding. I am only a boy. Or a girl. I am only an illegal immigrant or minimum-wage worker. I am just another black life. Or gay runaway. Or foster child that no one has been able to really see, truly love. It is so easy to diminish voices speaking from the margins. They are periphery voices, too long neglected in the halls of power and pulpits of our churches. These voices are difficult to hear, because they are thick with a pain in which we are complicit. They are inconvenient, because they ask us to do things like rework an entire service, center the experiences of the suffering in our sanctuaries, and march in the streets with those disrupting the status quo.
And yet when we ignore or silence these voices, when we ask them to just lose that raggedy edge of rage or speak in a way that’s more comfortable for the rest of us, we lose the prophetic power of God’s Spirit that speaks through them. “Do not be afraid,” God said to Jeremiah in his ordination moment so many centuries ago. And this is the kingdom counter-narrative in a world arrested by what Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs calls “the unsustainability of reaction mode.” Do not fear. Do not fear the powers and principalities. Do not fear kings and judges. Do not fear change. For the God of the dispossessed says to our prophets, “I have put my words in your mouth—to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
I truly believe God’s kingdom broke upon us that Sunday, like an ancient, oceanic wave. Somehow, in an instant, we were changed into more fire, more Spirit, more healing, more of the body of Christ. Our worship of lament and healing bent the arc of our community toward a sacred, defiant joy. It was a moment when, together, despite it all, we blessed God’s holy name. Beloved siblings in Christ, I tell you, there is no better time than the urgency of now to be the church, whose primary purpose is to walk humbly in the ways of the one who came to proclaim release to the captive, to let the oppressed go free. May it be so with us