Text: Jeremiah 1:4-10
I spent my high school years in the land of pollsters who tell leaders which way public sentiment is blowing. They can tell you anything from what issue will turn an election to what color tie should be worn for a debate.
During my years of ministry in Alexandria, I had a recurring dream. In this dream, the national mall was packed the way it was for King’s, “I Have a Dream” speech. In my dream, though, rather than being filled with people impassioned about civil rights, the mall was full of pollsters, all in the same neutral dress with fingers in the air, trying to discern the political breeze.
To be fair, information pollsters gather can help leaders make better decisions, not just politically expedient ones. Fundamentally, though, pollsters play it safe. That is their job. They gather information and deliver it.
I suspect pollsters have been at work since humans learned to walk upright. Part of their art is the art of good common sense – making sure that leaders say and do those things that do not provoke but please.
Jeremiah was anything but a pollster, but he lived in a land filled with them. In those days, they called themselves “prophets,” but Jeremiah would tell you that they were pollsters, pure and simple. And, they were not even particularly good pollsters. They did not share all their research with leaders, but held onto the controversial material. They were the 6th century B.C.E. royal elevator music, an innocuous sound playing to the powers that be. They claimed to have “a word from the Lord,” but their “word from the Lord” always sounded almost identical to the word that the ruling administration wanted to hear.
As I said, Jeremiah was no pollster. He was a prophet, not by desire, but by calling. Jeremiah did not grow restless with his life, have a mid-life crisis, and head down to the “Prophet Recruitment Office.” No, Jeremiah was as much a curmudgeon as a prophet. He just wanted to be left alone, especially by God.
Well, you do not always get what you want. We learn that about Jeremiah long before the end of Chapter One. God announces Jeremiah’s credentials and calling and in the great tradition of Moses recommending that Aaron do his job instead, Jeremiah flaunts the frailties of his youth. This not-wanna-be-prophet is the prototypical anti-Isaiah. He does not jump up and down, declaring, “Here I am, Lord, send me.” No, he is the guy in the back of the class with his head on the desk, just praying that the teacher will call on someone else.
Despite what Jeremiah wants, God calls whom God wants to call to do what God wants done. God calls Jeremiah to speak some hard and piercing truths. He is not called to lend his voice to the drone of pleasing pollsters in the King’s court. God calls Jeremiah to be a prophet, not to sit in the sanctuary and feel warm and holy, but to head to the streets to proclaim God’s holiness. God does not ask Jeremiah how he feels about this calling. No, God tells Jeremiah that he has been hardwired before birth to speak God’s truth in a world infatuated with easy and caustic lies.
Jeremiah, the reluctant prophet, has good cause for his reluctance. For who in their right mind, wants to say or do those things that will bring scorn or cause unrest or lead to social isolation? Who does not want to be liked? That goes for religious congregations as well. What church wants to rile its members, to risk internal dispute by speaking a controversial word? What church today can afford to be “prophetic” when most bend over backwards to keep the congregation happy, the pews occupied, and the offering plates full?
All elders that you elect to leadership at Cove participate in an officer training class to explain what elders are called to do. A large part of what church leaders are called to do, though, is not so readily apparent. In fact, it is often easier to identify what we are not called to do, especially if we pay attention to the ministries of Jeremiah and Jesus. If they are our guides, we are not called to complacency. We are not called to micromanage details until there is no time left to manage ministry. We are not called to put our fingers in the air to decide what views will play best in the pews.
In the tradition of Jeremiah, the church is called “to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” We are called to worship God, regularly, with passion and joy, but we are also called to see the benediction not as the end to our worship, but as the blessing on our worshipful work in the week ahead.
We are also called to understand the context of our ministry. When I first met Heidi Neumark, she was serving a church in the Bronx and I was serving a church in Old Town, Alexandria. We both had written books about the church in our time, but her insights are ones that still resonate with me, and often, haunt me.
In her remarkable book, Breathing Space, Heidi writes: “I am ordained in a predominantly white, middle-class church, and I believe we need to be careful that the poor do not become a backdrop for our miraculous charity; that quotas and programs and conferences on women, children, and poverty do not become a forum to show off our goodness and compassion on the fringe of the problem while the church goes about its other business as usual, dry-eyed and silent at the cruel heat of poverty drying up the whole Cherith brook. Pastors, priests, and official prophets (mostly white) are often cast in the role of miracle-working Elijah for the poor widows and children (mostly not white). It’s not only paternalistic and racist, it’s impossible. Most of us can’t keep up the mega-miracles for long. There is no point in romanticizing poverty. It stinks and it kills” (Heidi Neumark, Breathing Space, p. 46).
Elders in our denomination are asked to respond the same question on the day they are ordained: “Will you pray for and serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?” As I read our constitution, the word “people” is polity shorthand for “the people in the congregation.” One reason I felt a call from God to serve Cove is that you know better. “The people” is actually Christian shorthand for “all God’s children,” not just those currently sitting in this sanctuary.
Along with Heidi, you and I know that “there is no point in romanticizing poverty. It stinks and it kills.” As sisters and brothers of Jeremiah and Jesus, we are not called to produce “mega-miracles,” but “to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow” poverty of every kind.
This is the work of elders and pastors and musicians; it is the work of every member and every soul who calls Cove home. It is our work and it may mean bringing cans with us on Sunday so people will have something to eat on Monday. It may mean taking time to tutor students so that they can discover the joy of reading. It may mean writing to and meeting with elected officials to insist that we stop the pipeline to prison of young men of color. It may mean standing outside on a late August afternoon, bowing our heads in prayer as the church bell tolls in remembrance and repentance for bringing slavery to this land.
On the first month of my ministry in Atlanta, I read an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about an effort in the downtown to “sweep” homeless folks “from doorways, bushes and parks before office workers arrive.” A spokesperson for this “tidiness” effort was quoted to say, “It’s all about vigilance. It’s like a beehive. If you let it grow, it grows and grows and festers” (Friday, Aug. 20, 2004, “Unwelcome wake-up call” by Steve Visser, Atlanta Journal Constitution, p. F.2).
Those of us who journey in the footsteps of Jeremiah and Jesus can only weep at such a callous observation, because it is wrong, dead wrong! It is “all about vigilance,” the vigilance to live into our divine calling to be makers of justice and lovers of peace. Our homeless sisters and brothers, just as our immigrant brothers and sisters, are not bees in a beehive; they are children of God, each with a name and with a future that God cares about even if no one else does.
How can you and I make a difference in the face of such blatant callousness? How can we respond to God’s call to advocate for the forgotten and abused when we have already got more to do than time to do it? How can we hope to make a difference before such a sea of need? My God, how?
Return to the text with me. In addition to giving Jeremiah his “holy orders,” God tells this reluctant prophet what the risen Jesus will later say to his reluctant disciples, “Fear not, for I am with you to deliver you.” That is how you and I can do it. That is how we can have confidence in the face of the greatest obstacles and most insidious evil. We can speak and act and pray with confidence because you and I are never alone when we respond to God’s “holy orders.”
Well, the hour is now upon us. The day has come. Our calling is clear. With God’s “holy orders” and God’s sure promise, let our worshipful work begin.