4Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 5“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.” 6Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 7But 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, 8Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” 9Then 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. 10See, 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.”
Sermon: Call Stories, preached August 23, 2019 by Rev. Sandi
A few weeks ago, I was checking out an internet rumor or claim on Snopes and got sidetracked by another claim’s headline on the same page. Snopes, you know is one of the first online fact-checking websites that helps us sort out myths, rumors, and urban legends. The headline that caught my attention was that the hosts of one network’s morning show described children’s TV host Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers, you know, the Presbyterian minister, as an “evil, evil man.” Now I’ve used Snopes a lot and have found that it is just as ready to debunk crazy liberal rumors and claims as it is conservative ones, so please don’t see this illustration as a slight against any one network. All news channels employ sensationalistic headlines to draw us in, stoke their bases, and drum up ratings. Now, I was pretty sure that no one could possibly say anything negative about the late Mr. Rogers, let alone call him an “evil, evil man,” so I read on, expecting this to be debunked. I mean, I was very grateful to this man for convincing my daughter, who used to watch his TV show, not to be afraid of a flushing toilet. He got down low, showed the children that no one’s body could actually fit down that hole. It helped dispel a lot of angst in our household, especially when using airplane toilets.
It turns out that Snopes verified the claim about the morning show segment and listed it as true. Indeed, this network’s morning show had referred to Mr. Rogers as an “evil, evil man.” I was shocked, so, I went on to read the whole context. The segment aired using titles such as, “Blame Mr, Rogers,” and “Was Mr. Roger’s Wrong?” and “Was Mr. Rogers Ruining Kids?” The morning program’s hosts took Mr. Rogers to task for supposedly encouraging generations of children to grow up with a sense of self-entitlement. Remember how Mr. Rogers used to say or sing, “You’re special because you’re you?”
Snopes reported that “the show’s moderators cited unnamed ‘experts’ and a professor at Louisiana State University.” It turns out that the professor was not a psychologist or sociologist or a theologian; instead, the professor was a finance professor with a few anecdotal speculations after the usual run at the end of the semester of students wanting extra credit to save their grades. The professor said, “They felt so entitled. And then it just hit me. We can blame Mr. Rogers.” [And I’m not surprised, we live increasingly in a culture of blame.] The professor saw Rogers as representative of a culture of excessive doting, but later he contacted the network to clarify the substance of his comments. In doing so he said that he had made a casual observation—not a study—regarding entitlement in our society, and his reference to Rogers was just a metaphor. The professor, in fact, went on to say that Rogers was not the problem itself, and certainly not evil as the morning show had portrayed him. The professor added that he actually watched the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood with his young children, but he wanted his children to know that people become special by the choices they make, not by who they are—and for his children to know that the world owes them nothing. Others weighed in in the program’s aftermath, because there was a good bit of criticism in reaction to this particular morning show. Those who were familiar with Rogers’ work said that his emphasis on personal value was much more nuanced and balanced that the anecdotal input of the cited LSU professor… These voices, including one who had written a book about Mr. Rogers, said Roger’s message also involved keeping others in mind and repudiated egoism.” For example, “When community members in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood fell prey to self-centeredness, they would soon be corrected by the rest of the community in a calm and loving fashion.”
The bottom line is that there was never really any record of Rogers’ telling children that they were infallible or as talented as everyone else at everything.” Roger’s purest message, which the show sensationally and some claimed, maliciously distorted, was that each child has value, and that value was not related to a child’s particular successes or failures…[and that Rogers] explicitly acknowledged that some of their peers would be better at certain things than they were, explaining that having our own strengths and interest is part of what make each of us special” (taken liberally from https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/fox-fred-rogers-evil/). Roger’s message was theologically sound even without invoking the language of God or referencing the Bible. If he had done so, he may have alienated his non-religious viewers. The problem is, most people don’t like to dig deeper than the sound bites and sensationalistic headlines in this culture of instant information. But we have to, for nuance and truth often lie just beneath.
I think Mr. Roger’s true message—in its undistorted form—is a beautiful one. It’s a theological message right in line with what we can glean from God’s call of the prophet Jeremiah in our passage today. And God’s call of Jeremiah applies to all of us, in all of its glorious nuance. In short, this is one of the great call stories in the Bible. Jeremiah said that the word of the Lord came to him 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.” You see, God had a particular purpose for Jeremiah. Jeremiah was special, like children were in Mr. Rogers’ view, because Jeremiah was created by God, as we all are—for particular and varied purposes in our spheres of influence and for our particular setting and points in time. We all have calls upon our lives. We are all special because we are children of God; we are special because of who we are in God.
Now the LSU professor had a point in his follow-up and clarifying comments to the news network. He wanted his children to know that “people become special by the choices they make, not by who they are,” but I would respectfully disagree. We are special because of who God makes us and calls us to be. Our specialness comes from God, not from our choices. Our choices are merely our response, or lack of response, to what God requires of us. We are, in fact, “not masters of our own fate who have to make our own way in the world; we are messengers on a mission from the eternal God” (https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-16c-2/?type=old_testament_lectionary). Thinking we are masters of our own fate is pure ego. Rather, we are souls put on earth with a mission. And the thing is, we really struggle with our missional response to God sometimes, as Jeremiah did. As Adam and Eve did. As Moses did. As Israel did. As Peter did. As Paul did. As Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane. We argue, we sometimes flee, we avoid, we distract ourselves; but we can also obey, as Jesus did, as Mary did, as Jeremiah did. Again, and again we read how God’s voice is persistent. Maybe we’ve experienced that voice ourselves; I have. I knew I had a particular call on my life and God’s call did not let up until I chose to act on it—until the time was right for me to go to seminary and jump through all the hoops of ordination required for the chaplaincy, which was my original call. I had to trot out my call story in front of this committee and that examining board. I had to write my personal credo, what I believed, and subject it to professors and bishops and conference personnel and hear their critiques. And even though that part is over, God still deals with me, calling me to new pursuits, convicting me, challenging me to speak my truth and be authentic, calling me out of comfort zones—which is my biggest struggle. God, I have found, is never content to let us wallow and drift aimlessly, without mission and purpose. God has created all of you on purpose for a purpose, gifted us in certain ways with particular attributes and temperaments.
Because, here’s the thing: God has more invested in your ministry than you do. You have ministries out there in the world, which I would bet by and large, have largely to do with service, serving others in particular ways. Now, please don’t think of your ministry as anything to do with having to be ordained—a few are called to equip the body of Christ as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, but all of us are called to serve. You are all ministers of our Lord Jesus Christ with callings upon your lives. And your areas of focus and gifting will not all be the same. Some of you are passionate about the Lost Boys. Some about UMOM. Some about the health and function and campus of this church—so much so that you have served faithfully year after year after year. Some want to reach people through music. Mr. Rogers could tell you all that: our interests and strengths and various ways of perceiving the world are what make us special. What Mr. Rogers couldn’t say on a secular TV program was that God gives us those interests and strengths that make us special and fit us for particular missions in life, for the common good. Remember what Paul says in I Corinthians 12 about the varieties of spiritual gifts: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. And then he goes on to list wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues and interpretation of tongues. Paul says all of these gifts are the work of the same Spirit, and God distributes them to each one, just as God determines. I don’t believe Paul’s list here is in any way exhaustive. What are your gifts? Listening, cooking, visiting, hospitality, prayer, encouragement, medicine, nurture, sewing? It goes on and on.
Now it would appear that God formed Jeremiah in a certain way for a certain purpose in mind. It wasn’t going to be easy though, what God was requiring of Jeremiah. God appointed Jeremiah, even before he was formed in the womb, to be a prophet to the nations. Just a brief aside here: I have always found this a curious part of the verse—before he was formed in the womb. Mormon missionaries once informed me that this was a proof-text for our pre-existence—that we are all souls who come to this earth and conveniently forget our eternal existence. I’m not sure what to do with that, but I’ll tell you, I kind of like it. But I can’t prove it, nor is it Christian orthodoxy. But it makes me go, like hmmm.
Jeremiah’s purpose, verse 5 tells us, was to be a prophet to the nations! “Jeremiah was called to confront a corrupt political system and an immoral society that really didn’t want to hear what he had to say, and he would pay dearly for his willingness to speak the truth” (from the Truett Pulpit, www.blogs.baylor.edu). It’s tough to be a prophet, you know. You run afoul of people politically and theologically. You’ve got to call them on some inconvenient truths. Then they shoot the messenger! God was charging Jeremiah with having to do some uprooting and destroying and some overthrowing before he could plant and build. Jeremiah, even as a teenager knew this, and the predictable struggle ensues with God. “Ah, Lord God!” Jeremiah says. “I, I, I, I don’t know how to speak, for I am only a boy!” Excuses, excuses. It’s like when Moses complained about being slow of speech and tongue and then God gives him Aaron to help—rather than letting him off the hook. What God says to Jeremiah is that God will be with him and to not be afraid. God touches his mouth and says that now the words will be in Jeremiah’s mouth. God, in other words, empowers Jeremiah.
And so, what exactly happens then in the OT book of Jeremiah? Let me give you some background on the book because the lectionary keeps us in Jeremiah next week as well. God charges him to speak to a community in the unsettling place of exile—of not being where they belong. Jerusalem has been completely devastated in the Babylonian invasion of 587 BC, and Israel has been scattered from its homeland, living as a conquered people in Babylonian captivity. One of the chief tragedies of the Babylonian Exile was the end of the Davidic dynasty. For nearly four hundred years, descendants of David had occupied the throne of Judah, and God in 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 89 had promised that it would always be so. But the Babylonians destroyed David’s city, burned Solomon’s temple, and took David’s heirs into exile. The promises of God seemed to have come to an end. So, Israel’s way of life had been completely overturned; they had no security, and they had no idea if they would live to see their homes again. They were crying out the big questions as we all do when we go through life’s trials: “Where is God in the midst of this? Why did such devastation happen? Is God present in exile? Will God allow us to return home again? What happened to the covenant with David? Is the grace of the covenant promises made long ago still operative for this generation and for our children?
Jeremiah pronounces oracles against Judah, the kingdom in the south where Jerusalem is. They were worshipping gods other than the Lord with all the accompanying evils. Jeremiah called the people to return to God. He told them that judgement would come. But it is also Jeremiah who utters the most pivotal passage in salvation history. He tells us that a new and more enduring relationship was coming. And that is Jeremiah 31:31, which says that God will make a new covenant with the people, the covenant we Christians understand as coming through the person of Jesus.
Jeremiah’s mission wasn’t easy for him. In fact, he is often called the weeping prophet because of all the difficulties he encountered: He was beaten, thrown in a well, imprisoned, and confronted. It’s not easy to prophesy to your people that Jerusalem will be destroyed by invaders from the north. No one wants to deal in such harsh realities. Jeremiah utters a series of laments starting in chapter 11:18, which indicate his spiritual struggle with God over the enormity of his mission. And I think of the prophetic task all of us as Christians share. We think of our calling to proclaim Jesus to individuals, but this text also speaks to us about calling out larger, corporate and political structures on their abuses. We know what they are today. Remember, Jeremiah’s appointment was to be a prophet to the nations—to the big structures.
So, what’s the best news for us in this passage today? God says the same thing to Jeremiah that Jesus said to his disciples when he commanded them to go into all the world to make disciples of all nations: “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” One little girl, when asked in Sunday school who her favorite Bible character was, answered “Lo.” Her Sunday school teacher said, “Well, I’ve never heard of Lo.” The little girl insisted there was indeed a Lo—the very one that God was talking to when God said Lo, I am with you always. God would be with Jeremiah through it all: the uprooting and tearing down, the destruction and the overthrowing. The other part of the best news here is that God never leaves Jeremiah or us without a word of hope: The end of our passage today says that Jeremiah ultimately will build and plant. Something new is coming. The last word is not death but life, and we Christians call that resurrection.
All of us are formed in our mothers’ wombs in a particular way for a purpose in a particular time. We have all been created with Divine intention. We are made to follow Jesus and empowered to do so, even when it costs us something, and it will. God knew, long before we did, the kind of mess the world would be in when we got to this point in time. I invite all of you to reflect and meditate on this week on how God has formed you, the gifts and temperament God has given you, and how God has seen to your formative experiences in life. There is a Divine purpose for all of it, as it says in the book of Esther, “for such a time as this.” You are invited to discern what God is calling you to do right now in service, for the common good. Afterall, as Mr. Rogers, who was anything but evil, used to simply say, “You’re special because you’re you.” Amen.