A sermon based on Psalm 103:1-8 and Jeremiah 1:1-10 preached on June 21st, 2015
Are there words at all for this week? I struggled with what to say this morning because in the end, I’m not quite sure anything I could say—anything anyone could say—can tend to the sadness and heartbreak, the sorrow and the anger that we’ve felt after what has happened at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC during that evening bible study.
When we come here to this sanctuary on Sunday mornings, when we gather here inside this church at any point during the week, our time here should be an escape from what is too often a violent and hate-filled world. Sanctuaries should be just what they say they are: sanctuary, safe space. Our churches are a life-filled refuge from what we otherwise encounter and are often inundated with in our culture. But this week, for a faithful group of Christians gathering for bible study, that sacred trust was shattered.
There is much to mourn about what has happened this week, what is happening around our country. There is much to be angry about. And right now, I think it’s appropriate to be furious, but it was in the middle of all of this anger and calls for revenge that the daughter of 70-year-old victim, Ethel Lance, looked that young man in the eyes and said 3 towering words—words that have the power to shatter almost anything:
I forgive you, she said, You hurt a lot of people and may God have mercy on you, but I forgive you.
I’m not sure if it were me, I would have faith enough to say that—really say that and mean it. But with those words, she rose up from the center of this tragedy, before the smoke even settled, and offered forgiveness, not only because she needed to say those words for herself but also hoping they sunk in deep inside of that empty young man—the one with eyes that remained glazed over as she offered him forgiveness—hoping that one day he might know what the love and mercy of God really is—that he too might know the transformation of heart and mind that comes with being in Christ.
There are voices around the country crying out in both lament and in hope: Enough is enough. There are folks who say that acts of violence like this would not happen in a just society and it’s time for all of us to lift our voices and push back against it—not just simply to mourn it when it happens, or simply condemn it when we encounter but to work for a change in the heart and mind of our nation to stem this tide. To that I say, “Amen.”
Enough is enough. God imparts every human being with dignity and worth—God doesn’t just grant it, He creates it, and whenever it’s taken from anyone, it’s an affront to the Creator and it should alarm us, offend us, and call us to act. Martin Luther King, Jr once said:
There comes a time when we must substitute courage for caution.
There comes a time when each of us needs to be the change we wish to see happen—when we stop talking about these illnesses and injustices only within our little circles and instead step beyond ourselves to affect change inside of our communities. And that time is now. And there’s no better place for justice-makers to emerge than from behind a sanctuary door.
The people of Emanuel AME will not shut down their church. They won’t even start locking themselves inside their building when they gather for worship or for bible study. Right now, they’re mission is to stay unafraid—to live in faith, not in fear. Faith is the opposite of fear. And by continuing in their ministry, they will shame fear—cast it into the margins of their lives and of our society. Fear must be cast out of every Christian, so we can instead live in the faith, hope, and trust of Christ, who dispels darkness, and floods every place with light. That’s God’s project, and it’s our project, too, because we are the people of the Kingdom of God. We must cast out caution and replace it with courage.
The call story of the prophet Jeremiah has something to say to us about the caution we must throw aside when we find ourselves called to the task of proclaiming and living out God’s truth. There’s a word in it for all of us, and we need to hear it today. There’s a four-letter word in our passage that God despises, and I wonder if it caught your eye. The word is only. Jeremiah protests God’s call to him, saying to God,
Lord, you’ve got the wrong guy, are you sure you haven’t made a mistake, you must have, because if you want a prophet, someone who rises up to speak truth to people who would much rather not hear it, then I’m not the one you’re looking for.
And here is comes, the 4-letter word:
“I’m only a child,” Jeremiah says.
“I’m only…” Finish that sentence for yourselves. I’m only, what?
Young? Only one person? Little ol’ me?
What other excuses can we throw out there? Don’t we say these kinds of things about ourselves? Fill in the rest with your best excuse, your worst inadequacies. I myself have tons of ways to finish that sentence.
“I’m only…” has a cousin: “Who I am to…?” Who am I to act? Who am I to step up, say something, speak up? “I’m only…” and “Who am I to…?”: they’re cousins because no matter which of them we use, whatever comes after them will describe how we are insufficient, incapable, how and where we lack confidence or the ability to get something done. They’re both ways of saying,
I’m not good enough. Send someone else.
But God responds to Jeremiah:
Do not say ‘I am only a child.’
Once Jeremiah diminishes his own capabilities, God cuts in right away almost like He’s offended that Jeremiah would say such a thing about himself. No, you’re not “only a child!” You’re not only anything. When God looks at us, there’s nothing that we’re missing—nothing that we’re lacking. We’re not only anything, and in the face of Jeremiah’s self-doubt, God speaks up and says to Jeremiah,
You have enough and you are enough, and with my presence, you can do everything I’m asking of you. Now, Go. I will be with you.
Jeremiah pleads excuses, but the Sender knows who He’s sending.
Before you were born, God says, I set you apart for this.
See, Jeremiah thinks God needs someone perfect, and all Jeremiah knows is his own inadequacy. Like Jeremiah, we have a tendency to say “I’m only…” And that’s when all our self-doubt, and fear, and excuses come flooding in.
But God doesn’t call the equipped, He equips the called.
We’re going through Brenè Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection, and in it she says that part of living a wholehearted life is letting go of perfectionism and replacing it with self-compassion. She writes that perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels the idea that if you and I look perfect, live perfect, and do everything perfectly, we can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame. We all know that there is no such thing as perfect, but we try to appear perfect anyway, and it’s exhausting.
Perfectionism, Brenè Brown writes, is a 20-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us, when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s preventing us from taking flight.
In our pursuit of perfection, all we do is exhaust, debilitate, and sabotage ourselves, and we go into this sort of “perfection paralysis” (as Brené Brown calls it) where we think we do nothing right, so it’s just best to do nothing at all—to just stay put right where we are and keep silent, and don’t risk a thing.
Jeremiah speaks for me when he says,
Wait God, are you sure? I’m not right for this. I’m only…I’m not enough.
God interrupts Jeremiah, and me, and you whenever we say such things.
Don’t say you’re only… You’re not only anything. I’m enough. I’m everything, and I’ll be right beside you.”
The Sender knows who He’s sending.
God’s call is never about us anyway. God calls us not because of who we are, but because of who God is.
It’s time to cast out caution and replace it with courage. It’s time to drop our 20-ton shields, and with empty hands, step into the presence of the One who will give us everything we need.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!