Sunday, September 30, 2007

A sermon: "Can't Shut Him Up"

On the brink of my 22nd anniversary as a minister of Word and Sacrament, here's a sermon that hints at the crazy work that I do...

Can’t Shut Him Up

Jeremiah 20:7-13

September 30, 2007

We have been working through the poems and prayers of Jeremiah. That’s how the prophets of Bible speak: in super-charged language, through poems and prayers. The poems are addressed to people; the prayers are addressed to God. Today it’s a prayer - - and it happens right after Jeremiah is beaten by a priest named Pashhur. After being struck, he is locked in the stocks. It’s a restraining device, and it doesn’t restrain Jeremiah at all. After he condemns Pashhur the priest with a poem, he turns to God with a prayer. It goes like this:

7 O LORD, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. 8 For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. 9 If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. 10 For I hear many whispering: “Terror is all around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!” All my close friends are watching for me to stumble. “Perhaps he can be enticed, and we can prevail against him, and take our revenge on him.” 11 But the LORD is with me like a dread warrior ; therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail. They will be greatly shamed, for they will not succeed. Their eternal dishonor will never be forgotten. 12 O LORD of hosts, you test the righteous, you see the heart and the mind; let me see your retribution upon them, for to you I have committed my cause. 13 Sing to the LORD; praise the LORD! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.

Sooner or later in the Christian life, you may find yourself saying, “This is not what I signed up for…” Jesus said one time, “Take my yoke upon you . . . for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-29). But it is still a yoke on your shoulder. It’s still a burden. And you might think that you’ve been conned.

I’ve seen it happen with volunteers: they join the church with great delight. There is laughter and joy. They agree to do anything. They plug in coffee pots, make phone calls, work with groups – and sometimes later they appear at my door to say, “This is not what I expected.” It could be for any number of reasons.

Often it’s because people will let you down. When I worked with a middle school youth group years ago in New Jersey, two young women volunteered to help put on a picnic. We set up a soccer field, hauled in three charcoal grills. The kids told us they wanted to do this, so we planned a wonderful afternoon. Everything was ready at four o’clock. The grills were smoking. The music was playing. We expected forty kids, and one showed up – and he didn’t stick around. After an hour of waiting, we’re packing up six tubes of mustard, and one of the women said, “I don’t want to do this again.”

Or a few years ago, a group of teenagers were heading back to the mountains to do a week of mission work. They were really excited, because they were going back to the same place where they worked the previous year. They had worked hard – painting houses, nailing down roofs, cleaning up refuse. And they remembered how grateful everybody was when they finished the week – “Come on back, y’all,” the people said. So they did, and they found themselves assigned to some of the same houses – painting the same walls, repairing the same rooftops, cleaning up the junk blowing around same yards. And one of the kids said, “Rev, I don’t want to come back here again.”

You jump into the joy of Christian discipleship - - and you discover that some of the other disciples aren’t as Christian as you thought. Or that the redeemed of the world aren’t acting very redeemed. Or that the mission field is not a playground. People can let you down.

We heard it in Jeremiah’s prayer: he preaches his heart out, and people laugh at him. According to the nuances of the Hebrew words, it sounds like they are mocking his message, poking fun at his words, standing with their arms crossed and saying, “He’s really an idiot.” Oh, Jeremiah knows it is hard to be God’s servant in a world that ignores you. He knows people will let him down.

But his real complaint is with God. “God, you enticed me to do this, and I was enticed. You overpowered me, and I gave in. I speak your word, I do your work - - and it makes me the laughingstock of Jerusalem.” He has a complaint against God.

Remember Mother Teresa of Calcutta, that tiny saint who died about ten years ago? She spent fifty years on the streets, tending to those who had fallen in the gutters. They were hungry, and she fed them. They had no voice, and she spoke for them. They had no home, and she took them in. They had nobody else, and she loved them.

And when her personal journals were published this last month, they revealed she was full of doubts and fears. She confessed that she doubted if God really exists. She held her hands to receive communion, silently questioning if Christ was really there.

It didn’t start that way. Back in 1946, Mother Teresa has a series of visions, calling her to serve the poor of Calcutta. She said, “I heard the Voice calling me to serve the destitute and the dying.” In those early moments, she was flooded with holy light. But as she engaged in her work, she describes a “heavy darkness” that covered her soul. It remained for years and years.

Jeremiah’s prayer is shaped like some of the psalms. As you know, there are about eighty psalms that complain and cry for help. The most famous is the one Jesus quotes on the cross, Psalm 22. It begins with the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If Jesus quotes it, we need to take it seriously. The God who calls us doesn’t always live up to our expectations. Notice I said “our expectations.” And I’m not telling you something that hasn’t, at some time or another, crossed your mind.

I met a woman in Greek class on the first day of seminary. Sally was in her mid-fifties. She heard God calling her away from a desk job and into a pulpit. She gave up everything and went back to school. It was humiliating, hanging around with young pups like me, half her age. About the only thing we had in common is that we were both pretty poor at Greek. But Sally struggled, got through, and got ordained as a Presbyterian minister when she was fifty-four.

She served only one church, for about six years. Her occasional forgetfulness became more regular. They said it was Alzheimer’s. After a year of struggling, she resigned her pulpit and went on disability. The last time we spoke, she said, “So why did God go to all that trouble, calling me, teaching me, ordaining me – but not shielding me from this damned disease?” I did not know. Last year, after suffering for many years with Alzheimer’s Disease, Sally slipped away in her sleep. I still don’t have an answer for her question.

You can understand why Jeremiah is so upset, can’t you? On the day God called him to be a servant, he said, “I’m only a child,” and God said, “Don’t be afraid; I am with you.”

Jeremiah said, “But I don’t know what to say.” So God touched his lips and said, “I’ll put my words in your mouth.”

Then Jeremiah heard the message he was appointed to speak: God would pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, and only then build and plant.” He felt frightened because he was speak against the status quo, and his own people would turn against him. And God said, “Now, don’t you worry; I am with you; they won’t prevail against you…”

Today we hear Jeremiah pray, “Lord, they are prevailing…They are prevailing because you prevailed over me.” He says, “Lord, you enticed me.” Actually the English translation is a bit weak: in Hebrew it says, “You conned me.” “You deceived me.” Or even, “You seduced me.” To think: God sweet-talks you into something, and then you find out what it really is.

In Jeremiah’s case, he is a preacher – he speaks on behalf of God. When he speaks, it gets him into trouble. So one day he decides to stop speaking – if preaching stirs up trouble, just shut your mouth – but that causes another kind of trouble. It gives him heartburn. He says, “The Word of God is inside me; it’s like a fire in my bones. I have to let it out. I hate to do it, because it stirs up trouble. But if I keep the Word in, it burns up my bones. I have to preach… it’s hard work to keep it in, but it’s hard work if I let it out.”

I don’t know if you know what that’s like, but I do. I love to preach and I hate to preach. I love to stick my nose in scripture and sniff out something to say, but it never comes easily for me. Some of you know my routine: I start working on a year’s worth of sermons during the third week of January; I need a long runway to get each one off the ground. But most of my sermons don’t get finished until midnight or so the night before they’re preached – and even then, they’re not finished until we hear them and digest them. In twenty-two years, I’ve never been able to speed up the process – just ask my family. For me, it’s just bloody hard work.

And then there’s the popularity factor. The preacher is often a Minor League Celebrity, or more accurately the congregation’s Big Mouth. Everything the preacher says or does is amplified. If you like a lot of attention, oh, you’ll get it. You get anonymous letters, quoting you for saying things you didn’t actually say. Or people make big decisions in their lives on the basis of something that accidentally dribbled out of the side of your mouth that you didn’t think of much at the time. Or they get angry about what they think you’re implying.

Or they test you: seventeen years ago today, on my very first Sunday here, a man stopped me in the hallway after the first service to tell me that he didn’t like something I said, and if I would be inclined to change it at the second service, he might be inclined to vote for me as his pastor. I didn’t change it, because I figured if I gave in to him on my very first day, there was no telling what he might want me to change a few weeks later.

I’m convinced there is no crazier job, and no more important job, than to preach the Gospel. Everybody who speaks up for God should have a sign on the desk that quotes the words of Jesus: “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets” (Luke 6:26).

Or to put the same thought another way, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12). Just remember: the person who said that was reviled, persecuted, falsely accused, and nailed to a cross. You think they crucified Jesus for being nice? No, they crucified him for telling the truth.

And what’s true for preachers like me is also true for Real Christians like all of you:

  • You know what it’s like to speak up for God when people around you want you to hush.
  • You know what it’s like to tell the truth to a family full of lies.
  • You know what it’s like to treat the wounded neighbor as a Child of God, and you catch some flak for it.
  • You know what it’s like to forgive somebody when others think you’re foolish.
  • You know what it’s like to feed the hungry in a town where a lot of full dinner plates are scraped into the garbage can.
  • You know what it’s like to dig deep and give generously when others are looking to upgrade their luxuries.
  • You know what it’s like to commit a Sunday morning to the Lord of your life while others are preoccupied with their own aimlessness.

If you keep standing up and speaking up for God, someone out there will want to muzzle you and knock you down. You’ll be tempted to be quiet and blend in. And maybe you will…for a while. Until something happens, and the fire of God’s Spirit burns in your bones. And it’s burning inside you, and you can’t put it out.

That’s the moment you realize that living out your faith has actually changed you. And there’s no going back. God enticed you into the Kingdom of Heaven, and there’s no going back.

For all of her well-published doubts, Mother Teresa never backed off from her public charity. She may have felt like God disappeared or evaporated, but she never felt the need to reveal her doubts to the millions of people who admired her faith. The story of her journal caught the attention of a reporter out in Detroit last week, who read and pondered it. She saw in Mother Teresa “an intimate sharing of the cross of Christ.”

In the end, she said, Mother Teresa embraced the questions and accepted the darkness of God’s will. “God cannot fill what is full,” Teresa wrote. “God can fill only emptiness. It is not how much we really ‘have’ to give – but how empty we are - so that we can receive fully in our life, and let (God) live (eternal) life in us.”[1]

God’s life is a crucified life. God bears the world’s suffering, and transforms it through endurance and self-sacrifice. God may get quiet, but the fire of the Holy Spirit never goes out.

But I’m not telling you something that you don’t already know. “Come, Holy Spirit.” Burn, baby, burn…