A Sermon for Covenant
“When You Speak”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
February 3, 2012
Kyndall Rae Renfro
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
This dialogue between God and Jeremiah sounds all too familiar to me. I seem to have this same conversation on a weekly basis. I start feeling panicky about the sermon, so I try to tell God I’m too young; God rolls the divine eyes, “Heard that one before. Not buying it.” I pout, then run to Nate for some real sympathy. “I can’t do this. I don’t know what to say!” Every time I whine and fret. I cower in a corner at least once a week because I just know this is going to be the sermon that’s an absolute stupid wreck.
Jeremiah. Who feels sorry for that guy? He had it easy. Biblical prophets got their material verbatim from heaven, right? At least, that’s what I always assume when I see those huge introductory words, “THUS SAITH THE LORD . . .”
Because if I were to have an introduction it would be, “Thus saith Kyndall, hopefully with the help of God’s Spirit, undoubtedly with a bit of her own flavor mixed in. She could be a bit off. She could be right on target. She does—after much, much deliberation—believe this is something worth saying. Listen at your own risk. Believe at your own discretion. If she accidently says something ridiculous, dismiss it at once and pretend it didn’t happen. Pointing it out would damage her wobbling ego. If she ever says anything brilliant, let her know she’s on the right track as that will bolster her wobbling confidence.”
But I assume the prophets only needed a short intro because things were simpler back then. When God touched the prophets’ mouths and put words in them, they were nicely package words. No unscrambling required. No sermon crafting, no thoughts of your own. Just spit the stuff back out like a voicemail service. Also, real prophets were nervous to begin with, but stalwart and unflinching ever after, I’m sure.
I mean, the messages weren’t always pleasant and prophets didn’t exactly get to be popular, but at least there was no angst about what to say, right? Listen and repeat. Maybe you didn’t even have to listen. Maybe you just opened your mouth in the public square and let it flow like a divinely-inspired improv routine. Jeremiah doesn’t initially think of himself as a public speaker, but God promises to give him the words, and that settles it, right?
Only, when God places words in my mouth and on my heart, they never arrive in the mail as a neatly ordered thesis; rather, they land in my lap more like a bag of Scrabble letters. Every time I gulp. It doesn’t seem like much to work with. It feels like I’ve been given way too much control. It seems like a bad idea for God to trust me to speak. I try to tell him he’s made a mistake in the most self-deprecating way I can. God seems to think it’ll be fun this way.
But everyone treats this exchange between Jeremiah and God as a Big and Awesome One Time Event named The Call. That sacred moment in time when God shows up, requires something big, hushes all human objections, lays out a plan, promises protection. It happens to most of God’s appointed message-bearers—think of Moses or Isaiah or Mary. It’s generally a terrifying moment for the human at first, but he or she says yes and forever after their life belongs to God in a unique way. It’s still the language we use for vocational ministers today, “When was your call?” people ask. “Remember your call,” people encourage. “Hold onto your call,” they warn. When we ministerial folks get discouraged, we only need reach back into the recesses of our memory and recall The Call as it first appeared that one time that special day when God made the way clear and alleviated our fear.
But I just can’t stop thinking that Jeremiah had this blasted conversation with God every single week of his life, like me. Sheesh, maybe he opened his groggy eyes every morning grumbling, “I don’t to know to speak,” while the call of God just kept waking him up with the persistence of an alarm clock, until Jeremiah complied, again, “Okay! Okay, I’m up! I’ll do it. I sure don’t know how, but I’ll do it.”
Elevating The Call as one mystical, life-altering moment in time seems unhelpful to me. As if calling happens only once and happens only to certain special people. If calling is like that, what would this call to Jeremiah so long ago have anything at all to do with us? None of us are likely to hear from God that we’ve been appointed over the nations and kingdoms as Jeremiah heard. I don’t think we can relate to Jeremiah if we view him in this special class of holy men who heard from God in a long-ago age when God interacted directly with people in a way now obsolete.
But I do think we can relate to the terrible angst of trying to speak of God and Grace in this world of hostility, when we know how young we are compared to the Eternal One, how feeble our thoughts compared to Heavenly Wisdom, how stilted our words, how amateur our inclinations, how impoverished our compassion. Good God, did you really mean for us to be mouthpieces of the Love too big for words? We’re doomed to fail before we ever open our mouths, and God says, “I don’t want to hear it. Just try. Open your lips and your lives before all people, let them view your vulnerable, haltering attempts to sing my melody to the world. Don’t worry too much. I’ll help.”
I do think we’ve all experienced calls—probably a variety of them over the course of our lives—and typically the way you know it’s a call is because it half scares the wits out of you. You may be quick to object with reasons why you’re not qualified. How it’s not going to work. How you’re too young, too old, too middle-aged, what-have-you. And God will shush you, wink merrily at your stage fright, give you a friendly shove, tell you to break a leg.
It would be easier if God gave us the stuff to do verbatim, but that’s never how it actually happens for me, and I am starting to doubt the prophets had it that easy either. For me, sermons begin with the biblical words tumbling around inside my gut where they nearly cause an ulcer as I try to digest this foreign substance. I panic. I heave. I get confused. I feel disillusioned. And then, in spits and spurts, I feel peace. I feel hope. I feel butterflies and excitement. I feel dread. It’s a tumultuous mess just trying to stay faithful to this one simple calling to preach God’s Word, and I suspect it is exactly the same tumultuous mess in your life just trying to stay faithful to the few simple things God has given you. If you’re anything like me, you’re unclear far more often than you’d like to be on whether you’re getting this right. You eke out decisions, second-guess yourself, spin in circles—whether it’s parenting, praying, caring for the poor or loving your neighbor. You wonder if you’re up for the task, if you’ll ever get this figured out.
There are moments of profound joy, unexpected grace, and startling discovery woven between the panic attacks, false starts, and aggravating mistakes, which is how you know God is in it. God will not stop disturbing you with new calls, though they seldom come with the kind of clarity you’re certain you need.
Of course, a lot of people just start talking on behalf of God without having wrestled with God’s calling at all. You can tell by the smug way they rush into a conversation, convert it into a monologue, compete for attention, no fear or trembling evident on their lips. We’ve all done this before; hurrying to make our point, assuming if God spoke to us once, we’ve got the right to keep on talking. Perhaps our angst before God morphs into an angst about winning debates and proving our intelligence. Our fears about speaking for God diminish before our certainty that our neighbor is wrong and we’re just the ones to correct them.
But you see, the angst Jeremiah feels before God isn’t just a normal human response; it is a necessary one. Otherwise sacred words turn profane, inspired speech fades into braggadocios diatribe. “THUS SAITH THE LORD,” becomes an appendage to our vehement (vee-a-ment) opinions, the very worst way of taking God’s name in vain. Jeremiah’s hesitation didn’t deter him; it made him a worthy vessel. The struggle to speak was a valuable purging.
We must not forget that the way of God is tumultuous—a constant uprooting and tearing down, building and planting. The movement of God’s Spirit is highly frenetic; it’s not a canned argument we can whip out of our pockets like a tract. Speaking for God requires an ongoing dialogue with God. If you haven’t spent time in silence before God, if you haven’t had to sweat it out, then you probably shouldn’t speak as if your views had God’s stamp of approval.
But what if God continues to call people, just as God called Jeremiah, with words wild enough to overthrow big kingdoms and plant small seeds of compassion, and what if those calls happen often in a vast array of places among a diverse people? That would mean you never know when you might be the presence of a prophet. So listen up. Open yourself to the uprooting of God by unlikely voices. And don’t say Never, ever—you just might be next in line to speak, and if you quake a little when the call comes, you’ll do just fine.
May we hold our words as if they were a bag of Scrabble tiles sent straight from heaven. May we feel the weight and the terror of such a task, but may we have the daring to try, try, try and speak beauty in a world ravaged by hate, and may the Spirit of God breathe life through our trembling lips. Amen.