The reading from Jeremiah is an invitation to stop listening to the stories we tell about ourselves and start listening to the stories God has to say about us. You are not “less than.” You are “more than.” The God who created you is close by. The God who formed you is still forming you. The God who called you by name, still calls.
Now the word of the Lord came to me 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.’ Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’But 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. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’ Then 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. 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.’~ Jeremiah 1:4-10
Homily on Jeremiah 1:4-10 / Proper 16C / by the Rev. Tracey Kelly / preached to the congregation of St. Francis Episcopal Church, Great Falls, VA / August 25, 2019
Protests of inadequacy
Our Old Testament reading covers the first part of the Jeremiah’s call story. God appears to Jeremiah, a voice out of nowhere, and announces that Jeremiah is to be a prophet, to warn the people of Judah and Jerusalem. Jeremiah is the son of a priest, but he has doubts. “Oh Lord, I do not know how to speak because I am only a child.” Jeremiah considered what he was lacking, what he was not. He cannot believe that God is calling him to this task. Why would God want someone so young and lacking in skill and experience?
Do you hear his lack of confidence? “I do not know how, because I am only…”
This objection of Jeremiah, this protest of in adequacy, is a fairly typical response in the Bible by prophets and leaders when confronted by God to do something.
There was Moses on the mountain, in front of the burning bush, with God telling him to go and do something so significant, so outrageously big, that it blew poor Moses’ mind. Go free my people, said God, go convince Pharaoh. Go.
Poor Moses. His objection? “Oh Lord, I am not eloquent. I am a poor speaker. How am I, such an inadequate speaker supposed to change Pharaoh’s mind?” (Exo 4:10)
There was Isaiah in the temple. When God appeared ready to make Isaiah his messenger, poor Isaiah responds. “I am not worthy. Everything I say is false and sinful. I live among sinful people. Surely, not me!” (Isa 6:5)
God’s reply to these inadequate would-be prophets is simple. “As the Creator I know my creation and I have chosen you.” God has formed them, but then God continues to form them by equipping them with the words they needed.
The stories we tell ourselves
There is something about Jeremiah’s protest, something about that shout: “For I am only…!”
…something that connects with our own experience. Jeremiah’s experience of self-doubt, of uncertainty, of inadequacy, is often ours.
“Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a child” How many times do we tell this message to ourselves? I do not know how to X, for I am only a Y. How might you fill out this message?
- I do not know how, because I am too young. I do not know how, because I am too old.
- I do not know how, because I’m not smart enough or educated enough.
- I can’t, because I have a track record of failure.
- I can’t because I am not strong enough.
- I can’t because I am mediocre.
Just like Jeremiah, we are human and often plagued with feelings of self-doubt, fear, inadequacy, and feelings of unworthiness. We are human beings. We are susceptible to believing false narratives about ourselves. Narratives that tell us we are “less than,” that we “are only.”
Brené Brown calls these “the stories we tell ourselves.” Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor who has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy and is the author of 5 NYT best sellers. In her book, Rising Strong, Brené Brown says, “The most powerful stories may be the ones we tell ourselves.” But they’re usually fiction.
“Storytelling helps us all impose order on chaos—including emotional chaos. When we’re in pain, we create a narrative to help us make sense of it. [emphasis added] This story doesn’t have to be based on any real information.”
In “Rising Strong,” Brown supplies a very vivid example of “the story I’m making up right now” in action.
My husband, Steve, and I were having one of those days. That morning, we’d overslept. Charlie couldn’t find his backpack, and Ellen had to drag herself out of bed because she’d been up late studying. Then at work I had five back-to-back meetings, and Steve, a pediatrician, was dealing with cold-and-flu season. By dinnertime, we were practically in tears.
Steve opened the refrigerator and sighed. “We have no groceries. Not even lunch meat.” I shot back, “I’m doing the best I can. You can shop, too!” “I know,” he said in a measured voice. “I do it every week. What’s going on?” I knew exactly what was going on: I had turned his comment into a story about how I’m a disorganized, unreliable partner and mother.
I apologized and started my next sentence with the phrase that’s become a lifesaver in my marriage, parenting and professional life: “The story I’m making up is that you were blaming me for not having groceries, that I was screwing up.” Steve said, “No, I was going to shop yesterday, but I didn’t have time. I’m not blaming you. I’m hungry.”
Brown, Brené. Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (2017)
Brené says that “the most dangerous stories we make up are the narratives that diminish our inherent worthiness.” These are stories born from places of shame and feelings of unworthiness. Rising Strong is a book about what it takes to get back up and how to own our stories and write new endings. She says, “we must reclaim the truth about our lovability, divinity and creativity.”
God is still calling us and God is still forming us
The call of Jeremiah is also a story about claiming a new ending. The grace in this story is that God believes that Jeremiah is sufficient. He is enough as is.
I want to make three different observations about the Good News in this reading.
First, God knows exactly who he has chosen, despite Jeremiah’s doubts. He said: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before I created you in the womb, before you were born, I set you apart.”
We are known by God. Every detail. Every flaw. Every gift. God knows us. And has known us even longer and better than our parents have. This a divine assertion of our human worth and dignity.
It’s a message God shared with Isaiah. “The Lord called me from the womb,” Isaiah said, “from the body of my mother He named me.” (Isa 49) “I have called you by name and you are mine.” (Isa 43)
I have called you by name. You are mine. God is making a claim on us. And if we are good enough for God, aren’t we just good enough?
Second, God releases the fear. “Do not be afraid” he tells Jeremiah. “For I am with you.” This assurance “do not be afraid” repeated so often in the Bible. “Do not fear Isaiah, for I am with you.” “Do not fear, Mary.” God’s presence is a powerful force which drives out fear, including those inner fears which lead to self-doubt.
Third, “Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my face.” Do you hear the intimacy in this phrasing? This is a God who is present. This is an anthropomorphic God – a God with hands so close that He can reach out and physically touch Jeremiah’s lips. And God gave Jeremiah what he needed.
This anthropomorphic, bodily God recalls the intimacy of the second creation story in Genesis 2. “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”
God scoops up the clay with his hands and forms Adam and breathes life into him.
And this intimacy, this divine, immediate presence is not all that different what we hear in our Gospel this morning. Jesus sees the bent-over, disabled woman hobbling by. He sees her. Then he reaches his hands towards her, touches her, and “and immediately she stood up straight,” her dignity restored.
So, here’s the thing I want to say about this powerfully creative and immanent God of Genesis and Luke.
The doubt-filled, limiting stories we tell about ourselves, the stories that we are not good enough, that we are only… well, they don’t cut it. They don’t cut it because as beloved children of God, we were all created, all formed, in the same loving, careful, and intimate way.
God said to Jeremiah, “do not say, ‘I am only…” Do you hear the gentleness in this invitation?
This is an invitation to stop listening to the stories we tell about ourselves and start listening to the stories God has to say about us. You are not “less than.” You are “more than.” God has the hands to scoop up the clay that forms you and to give you what you need.
The God who created you is close by. The God who formed you is still forming you. The God who called you by name, still calls.
© 2019 Tracey Kelly. All rights reserved.
Photo credit: “Baby’s hand,” by Giles Cook, licensed under CC BY 2.0