| Jeremiah 1:4-10
||Sun, August 23, 1998
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Emphasis. Where do you place the emphasis? Try learning another language and you soon discover that vocabulary and grammar are not all that must be learned. Decoding the way in which emphasis can change the meaning of a word or phrase is crucial to understanding what someone is trying to say. Music is similar. Learning the notes is just the beginning. Sensing where to place the emphasis is a lifelong journey. The little notations of 'pianissimo' and 'forte' provide only a clue to the emphasis the composer intended. Why, even the emphasis in a sermon is critical if the congregation is to receive what the preacher intends. Working with Bill Buck last advent as we prepared to deliver a sermon on John the Baptist I was amazed at how often Bill stopped us to wonder about where to slow down or speed up ... whether this line should be given with strength or a whisper. It is all a matter of emphasis. And not only in the delivery. We also must choose what emphasis to give the details of our life. Faced with the death of Bill Taylor at age ninety-three do we place more emphasis on gratitude and joy for a life well lived ... or on the sorrow and pain of loss we feel at the passing of such an old and wise friend? Is it 'six of one or half a dozen of the other'? All of us, whether we are conscious of it or not, are always making decisions about what to emphasize ... and how ... and why.
Now, there are some biblical literalists who suggest that all of the Bible is equally the 'Word of God'. It is as if all of the Bible has the same emphatic weight. But to read the text in this way would result in monotony. Literally ... in one tone. No emphasis. The truth is otherwise. Even those who call themselves literalists add emphasis when they read ... and when they interpret. All of us give some parts of the Bible more weight ... more importance ... than others. Even within different books of the Bible we give emphasis to particular chapters and verses. And, when you are asked to serve as a lector on any given Sunday morning, you soon discover how challenging it can be to get the emphasis of an ancient Hebrew or Greek text 'right'. It won't do to simply read the words. The text will struggle to come alive if it is devoid of a variety of emphases. Yet, as soon as one dares to add emphasis to an ancient text, one enters the risky world of interpretation. Risky because no one now living really knows how the composer intended the text to be emphasized. Mozart and Beethoven at least left clues between the staves denoting tempo and volume to help later interpreters get the music right. Even Shakespeare includes bracketed stage notes. But the Biblical authors include no such assistance. Instead, we as the inheritors of these texts strive to maintain an 'interpretive memory' that keeps alive various streams of interpretation ... varying emphatic ways in which the texts have been read.
Which brings us to Jeremiah. To Jeremiah whose prophetic ministry is the hinge that links the Old and New Testaments. Jeremiah ... who seems so forgotten in our community of memory. Jeremiah ... whose text is given voice in the church for the next nine Sundays. And Jeremiah ... whose call to be a prophet is the subject of but six short verses to be read and interpreted this morning. Six short verses. Surely this shouldn't take us long. How tricky could it be to interpret six verses? Watch the actors in Al Pacino's movie 'Searching for Richard' as they argue over what emphasis to give a single verse of Shakespeare's 'Richard III' and you will realize the task we face this morning. And here's the heart of the matter. The call of Jeremiah has long been recognized to fit the traditional pattern for the call of a prophet. Moses has one like this. Isaiah, too. First the prophet hears God's call. It comes at a particular time and place. Then the prophet-to-be rejects the awesome call ... it is too much, too hard, too far beyond their ability. God replies with the assurance of divine assistance and then gives the prophet a message to speak. As such biblical prophets are not 'fortune-tellers' who see into the future so much as they are messengers given the Word of God to speak in the present. Sure enough, Jeremiah's call fits the pattern. The problem is ... where does the emphasis lie?
Often the focus of attention is placed on the give and take between God and Jeremiah. The emphasis is placed in the inner personal struggle of Jeremiah: "Then I said, 'Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." This is pure gift to a preacher situated on a university campus and in the precincts of a theological school. It is the stuff of vocational decision making ... who shall I be ... what shall I do? This text seems to be about Jeremiah ... about Jeremiah's struggle to accept the call of God. It is about a youth who fears that the adult world will pay him no heed. It is about responding to the call of God. Or is it? There are those who suggest that this text is not about Jeremiah's personal struggle at all. To read it in this way is to interpret the text through the lens of an individualistic culture in which everything must be first about the inner life of the individual. These others suggest an alternate emphasis. They see in the rhythms and cadences of these verses the liturgical flow of an ordination service. This is not about a lonely journey to prophetic ministry but about an entire community calling and affirming the ministry of one. It is this, such interpreters suggest, that explains Jeremiah's access to the high and the mighty. Recently I was required to write a brief reflection on my call to ministry. For the first time in my life I found myself no longer needing to name the moment when I received the call. Instead, I found myself accepting - even celebrating - the reality that I had little to do with 'choosing' my own calling. The first-born of a preacher I have often wondered about the psychological factors that led me to follow in my father's footsteps. Suddenly I find myself abandoning psychology for theology. God, through the community, has called me out ... and that call extended even into my mother's womb. Perhaps the emphasis of the text is not on Jeremiah's personal decision ... perhaps the emphasis here is not to be on the individual's choice of vocation. Perhaps the emphasis is on the community which discerns our gifts and gives voice to God's call.
Perhaps. But there is at least one other possible emphasis to consider when voicing this text. Maybe this text is not really about Jeremiah at all. Maybe this editorial introduction provides a means of grounding God's Word in a particular human voice in a particular place. This is, after all, always the impossible possibility that lies at the heart of the mystery of biblical faith. Imagine, the Word of God finding voice in the culturally biased, loaded and easily misunderstood words of human beings. One of the most controversial aspects of our regular liturgical practice here at University Hill is the response to reading from scripture: "This is the Word of God - Thanks be to God". We dare not say these words by rote as if they were simple and straightforward. Yet, to stop affirming that these texts are more than human is to risk cutting off the very roots that nourish our community. Maybe the call of Jeremiah is really about God ... and about the mystery of God speaking through the lips of humans. Maybe the emphasis should be placed on the very last verse ... on the words that God places in Jeremiah's mouth:
"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."
Here is the entire book of Jeremiah (all fifty-two chapters) in sum. In fact, one author published a two-volume commentary on Jeremiah. The first volume is entitled "To pluck up and to pull down". The second volume is called "To build and to plant". And even here we are faced with questions about what emphasis to give these words. We live in a culture that places the highest value on 'progress' and on 'growth'. Politics is often measured against 'progress'. Economics is often quantified by 'growth'. These are positive values ... they are simply assumed to be 'good'. Not surprisingly, we are sorely tempted to emphasize that Jeremiah comes with a message that God comes 'to build and to plant'. It doesn't take a biblical scholar to notice, however, that placing the emphasis in this way does violence to the text. Because before reconstruction there must be deconstruction.
The shock of this text - then and now - lies in the fact that four of the six verbs that Jeremiah uses to describe what God is up to in the world are ones that come with negative connotations: "to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow". Simply put, this doesn't sound like good news. We aren't alone in making such a judgment. Wait until you discover what happens to Jeremiah when he begins to preach this sermon on a regular basis! He's not the most popular preacher in town when he starts to say things like: "If you want to see what God is doing, watch the way in which the Almighty is going to bring an army to destroy Jerusalem, the Holy City. Yes, God intends to wipe out your precious political and religious institutions, to take away whatever security you rely upon and to send you into exile from your own land. This is the Word of the Lord." Guess what. Not many folks feel like saying "Thanks be to God" after sermons like that. In fact, they question whether such nonsense could possibly have been delivered from the Almighty to Jeremiah. They would have been stunned to discover that Jeremiah, of all people, has been published ... and in the Bible of all places! But later generations see what they could not see: that Jeremiah's call was authentic, that as painful as God's Word was ... it was the truth ... and, therefore, was worthy of our attention.
And what does that all mean for us? What emphasis should we give this text in our lives and in our life together? Well, that will be the 'stuff' of more than a sermon or two over the next two months. But we can imagine what it might mean. It might mean that we looked at our lives and at the church and at the world through lenses which are rarely prescribed ... lenses which bring into focus the places of breakdown and decay because this is where the handiwork of God is to be located in our time. The growing destabilization of everything we have come to take for granted may not be 'the end of the world'. Look at the fear with which we perceive the possible outcome of the residential school abuse trial in Nanaimo. "It might bankrupt the church", we say, assuming that this could not possibly be what God intends. But Jeremiah suggests that it is the beginning of the new thing that God is doing in our midst. As strange as it sounds this message has a familiar ring to it. It sounds like the Cross looks. Though often forgotten, maligned and misunderstood it is, in truth, the faith of a man like Bill Taylor ... the faith of his mother and father ... and the faith of countless others before them. Today, however, the emphasis no longer rests on our ancestors. History now places the emphasis on us ... on the inheritors of this cruciform faith in whose lives this ancient treasure now resides. Our calling - like that of Jeremiah - is to give voice to this confounding and awesome God who comes"to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant".