Called For Trouble

by Michael Usey

Jeremiah 1:4-10, NRSV

In 2008, after losing her parliamentary seat, Wangari Maathai urged Kenyan tribal elders to help stop ethnic killings, following a disputed presidential election. This was a precarious position. The text messages to her were threats that read like this: “Because of your opposing the government at all times … we have decided to come for your head very soon.” 

Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, and the Nobel Committee said of her, that she was “a strong voice speaking for the best forces in Africa to promote peace and good living conditions on that continent … her unique forms of action have contributed to drawing attention to political oppression.”

The push for peace, for justice, made her dangerous. She’d already changed vast numbers of women’s lives, pushed for civil rights, as she founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, and worked to get over 30 million trees planted in that country. 30 million trees! Of course, there was the fact that she’d faced house arrest, been beaten unconscious, jailed, and received death threats. But we know this, right?

To work for peace, to work for justice, to work for civil rights is dangerous work. In 2011, she died of ovarian cancer. I thought of Wangari Maathai when I read today’s text. We’ve seen this in our lifetimes. Brave people praised on social media can quickly become recipients of death threats.

Prophets challenge people, things, institutions. They challenge the status quo. They shake things up. People find them “unsettling” at best. At worst? People want to kill the prophet altogether.

Jeremiah’s first-person poetic account of God’s calling him as a prophet echoes Moses’ commission to lead the enslaved Israelites from Egypt in Exodus 3.  God’s rescue of Moses as an infant 80 years before preceded his commission. God likewise refers here to Jeremiah’s prenatal calling. Like Moses, whose many objections include his own ineloquence, Jeremiah protests that he does not know how to speak.

As with Moses, God does most of the talking, sending Jeremiah and giving him words to speak.  But God does not mention that, like Moses, Jeremiah would be addressing rulers. Like Moses, Jeremiah is appointed to the task of nation building. Like Moses, he is given a preview of the rough path ahead. As with Moses, a foreign oppressor will figure largely in the story. Moses’ God fought the Egyptians to free the Israelites, but in Jeremiah’s time God will use the Babylonians as tools in a conflict with the Israelites themselves. Ultimately, Jeremiah’s calling, like Moses’, brings the nation to a better place.

Last Sunday I preached on Luke 4, Jesus’ preaching in his hometown of Nazareth, and of his near murder at the hands of townspeople. Like Jeremiah, Jesus is understood as a prophet. Like Jeremiah, he is questioned and rejected by his own people, who attempt to kill him, though he survives to continue preaching. Like Jeremiah, Jesus gets into trouble over foreigners.

So Jeremiah’s calling distinctly echoes the story of Moses, which is in turn echoes Jesus’ story. To speak as a prophet is to follow God into a calling one would not have chosen, saying and doing things that anger one’s own neighbors, things that, though supported by God, will only be seen as fruitful later on, following trials and tribulations. No wonder Moses and Jeremiah hesitated.

Prominent change agents throughout history have encountered similar scenarios, whether they would have retold their own beginnings in similar ways or not. Some universal themes emerge among such leaders: their vocation as an outgrowth of early experience; humility before a task that is unwieldy precisely because it is innovative, precisely because it does confront entrenched but unjust societal norms, precisely because the job description cannot be found as such in any vocational counselor’s manual.

Many times other ministers and div students have related similar stories to me, often with direct quotes from God speaking to them as Jeremiah does here. The themes are usually the same — they wanted to do something else, but God dragged them kicking and screaming into ministry, over strenuous objections and sometimes after many years. Very few tell stories like that of Isaiah who, in stark contrast to Jeremiah and Moses, volunteered with his hand held high: “Pick me! Pick me!”. Nor do they remember that Jesus himself never raised any objections to his calling, nor did Paul, nor did Mary, nor did, before them, Noah, Abraham, Isaac (who really should have), Jacob, Joseph (who seemed to thrive on ambition), Deborah, Esther, or Judith.

What experiences and anxieties underlie these call stories?  Does the belief that God overrode rational objections justify uprooting a young family or taking leave of a promising job or perhaps of one’s senses? Is the claim that this was God’s choice and not their own a no-fault clause in case things go badly? Or is it a sincere deference to divine will and preparation to follow through in work that will prove demanding? I want to believe the latter. But though I rarely question their stories, I worry that narratives in which God speaks so explicitly (more explicitly than I have ever been talked to by God) may set some people up for faith crises when doors to ministry fail to open.

A major difference between the prophets Moses and Jeremiah and most of my fellow pastors and ministers is that the biblical figures were not called into any predetermined career path. Prophets were called by God to break new ground with creativity, over objections, with no certainty except the word of God, with which they argued constantly not only in the beginning but throughout their lives. Another distinction between the biblical prophets and us contemporary pastors is that prophets received no salary, benefits, and retirement for what they did.

Most people I have ever heard speaking of their start in vocations similar to those of Moses and Jeremiah begin not with a burning bush or an audible voice, but with a deep conviction that whatever else they may do, and no matter how they might or might not establish their 401Ks, it is the task itself that draws them in. Eula Hall, who describes herself as a “hillbilly activist,” an Appalachian woman with an eighth-grade education and a burning sense of purpose, said many years ago how she came to found the Mud Creek Clinic in southeastern Kentucky to provide health care for the poor: “I looked, and I said to myself, ‘taint right like this, no medical service here, taint right. Somebody needs to act.’ I guess that somebody was me.”

So, (show of hands, please) can we all agreed that God is love and that God is merciful? That God reaches out to those in need and in their time of trouble? That is a common theme throughout scripture.  And yet Jeremiah 1 reminds us that another common biblical theme is that God also reaches out, calls, commissions people to do God’s work and thereby God puts people in trouble.

Jeremiah is called by God to be a spokesperson for God (i.e. prophet). Jeremiah, though young, knows enough about God to beg out of this prophetic assignment, pleading that he’s not good at public speaking and that he’s much too young to represent God.

God is unmoved, commanding young, afraid-to-speak Jeremiah to “go” and speak the words God gives him no matter the reaction he receives, promising, if Jeremiah gets into trouble, “I will rescue you.” I can’t go into all the horrible things that happened to Jeremiah along the way:  imprisonment, mockery, pain, and near death. God always came to Jeremiah’s rescue—sort of.

Each time Jeremiah got knocked down, God returns to him. But God not only rescues him but immediately commands him, “Go!” Time and again, when he speaks God’s truth, Jeremiah is cast into the worst sort of pain, only to have God reiterate the command, “Go!” Let’s just say that Jeremiah’s reservations at responding to God’s call were justified. Presumably, young Jeremiah had a nice life—until God called.

In our day it has become conventional to present God as a beneficent being who does nice things for us. Want greater prosperity and happiness? Well, you’ve tried drugs and alcohol, now why don’t you try God? God has got good things in store for you; put your life into God’s hands and God will put a smile on your face. Miserable? Come to Jesus and he’ll fix that. In pain? No problem for an always available and merciful God.

Jeremiah may be young, may not know all that much about God’s ways, but he knows enough to know that when God shows up and comes into our lives, sometimes there are blessings and benefits; sometimes there is pain and trouble. God comes to Jeremiah, not offering him a more meaningful life, but rather assigning him a job to do. We who have been taught to think of God as a way to get what we want may find it hard to hear that we are God’s way to get what God wants! Time and again in scripture, God seems to think nothing of placing otherwise contented, happy people’s lives in peril.

For his merciful fidelity and compassionate obedience, Jesus got a cross. Perhaps even more troubling was that Jesus said that, if we were faithful in walking with him, we would get crosses too!

In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Polonius says, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.” There may be holy madness in prophetic actions. Prophets occupy that liminal space between God and humanity. They have a closeness and intimacy with God which can be threatening, because they’re fearless – Martin Luther King Jr. closed his last speech saying, “And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” The next day he was assassinated.  In their prophetic work they’re out there suspended mid-air. They’ve let go of safety and security.

As a woman once told Ann and me, “I was happy until my pastor insisted I go on the church’s mission trip to Haiti. That made me miserable. Now, every time I open the refrigerator door I’ve got photos of three Haitian orphans staring at me. There are people in this town who avoid me because they’re afraid I’ll say, “Give me two hundred dollars now! I’ll feed a child for a year.” Those who have braved prophetic acts fling themselves out into the unknown, trusting God, trusting they’ll be caught on the other side. They and we do this, we dare brave things in faith because we know God and are known by God. Jeremiah, Jesus, MLK Jr, Wangari Maathai – caught on the other side. Prophets keep going, stay the course, despite visible evidence.

What prophetic action is God calling you to? Where in your heart do you know God has had a role since you were a child? To what courage might God be calling you now? Something you know God is urging you toward? To pluck up or pull down, to destroy or overthrow, to build or to plant?

Now that you know, make your faith known. Be brave. Be courageous in faith. Let go into that liminal space. It may not end well for you. But God calls us to such difficult work.

In her Nobel Peace Prize lecture, Wangari Maathai said this, “In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.” The world needs you. The world needs you. The world needs you. Go, be brave for God’s sake.In Jeremiah 1:4-10, God gives a young man a brutal, deadly assignment.  Here’s my genuine hard question for each of us this crisp morning: Can a loving and merciful God also be willing to hurt and imperil faithful lovers of God? (repeat) I await your answer in our talkback.