Text: Jeremiah 1:1-14
Every summer of jr high and high school involved baling hay with my uncle, and I have a fond memory of one of the first times he had me drive the tractor that pulled the baler and the wagon where he would stack the square bales. I would have been about your age. We would always use the same gear in the tractor for baling hay, but each gear had a low and a high setting, adjusted with the push of a lever. Up to that point I had always driven in low, but toward the end of one of those long days my uncle told me that at some point during the next load he was going to signal from the wagon for me to push it into high. And sure enough, a little ways into the load I looked back, my uncle gave me the signal, and, for the first time, I shifted on the fly from low to high. The thrill that I felt run through my body had a little bit to do with the immediate increase of speed from the tractor, but probably had more to do with this sense of being asked and trusted to step up to the next level. I felt like I had crossed some invisible threshold, now driving out in the field the same speed that any experienced adult would drive.
That feels like an appropriate metaphor for this morning. We are here to celebrate and recognize the threshold from childhood to adolescence that the six of you are crossing – Aaron, Elizabeth, Daniel, Jonathan, Fiona, and Ian. I like the way Fiona’s artwork on the bulletin cover pictures this as a venturing out, which is exactly what it is.
We believe this is an important enough step in life, that it should be named publicly, and that it should be experienced not just personally or even just within your immediate family, but that it should be witnessed and honored by the whole congregational family. This is truly one of the major transitions one makes in life and it can be about as thrilling and daunting as driving a large piece of machinery in an open field.
Today’s service is one you’ve helped shape: you’ve chosen the songs, you’ve helped lead different parts of the worship – and it’s also a service that we hope will help shape you. One of the ways you’ve helped shape this service was in choosing the scripture. Two weeks ago we met together, studied a couple scriptures, and you chose the calling of the prophet Jeremiah, out of the first chapter of that book, as the main scripture for today.
Something noteworthy about Jeremiah’s story is that he experiencing God’s call at a young age. Too young in Jeremiah’s opinion. He’s not all that interested in hearing this kind of voice at this point, plus he’s pretty certain that he doesn’t have what it takes to do whatever is being asked of him. Here’s how it’s goes in the Message version of the Bible. “4 This is what God said: 5 ‘Before I shaped you in the womb, I knew all about you. Before you saw the light of day, I had holy plans for you: A prophet to the nations – that’s what I had in mind for you.’ 6 But I said, “Hold it, Master God! Look at me. I don’t know anything. I’m only a boy!” 7God told me, “Don’t say, ‘I’m only a boy.’ I’ll tell you where to go and you’ll go there. I’ll tell you what to say and you’ll say it. 8 Don’t be afraid of a soul. I’ll be right there, looking after you.’”
We don’t know how Jeremiah experienced this word from the Lord – whether it was a sharp clear message that happened over the course of a few minutes, or whether this was an inner, small voice, that Jeremiah felt speak over the course of a few years. Those of us well into our adulthood are still trying to figure out just what this voice of the Lord is all about – how to listen, how it speaks, how to pay attention. What we do know here is that this voice doesn’t agree with Jeremiah’s self-assessment. He is being asked to enter into a stage beyond childhood. A time of greater awareness of the world around him. A time when he is starting to feel responsible for engaging this world in a way that helps bring about a better world.
We don’t know how old Jeremiah was at this point, but for the purposes of today, Jeremiah is a twelve year old, or an almost-twelve year old. He’s you. You’re him. The world that’s opening up in front of you, the new place you’re moving in to, is a place that resonates with the holy voice that calls you to live for something greater than yourself. This is something you’re starting to be aware of in a new way, developing the ears to hear that this voice calls to you.
If this sounds strange, hard to believe, and slightly overwhelming, then you’re having the right reaction. None of these experiences in scripture are met with much enthusiasm. Moses has over sixty years more life experience than Jeremiah, but had a similar response. “I don’t know how to speak.” Samuel’s calling is so subtle that it has to be repeated four times before he realizes what’s going on. Jonah senses what he is supposed to do and promptly sets sail in the opposite direction.
So there’s this opening exchange between the young Jeremiah and this holy voice, but I’m especially interested in what happens next. After giving Jeremiah what seems to be a daunting life task, and after Jeremiah’s protest, here’s what happens. It’s in verse 11 of chapter 1. “The word of the Lord came to me (again) saying, ‘Jeremiah, what do you see?’” I like this next step in the exchange. Rather than dwelling on big barely understandable things, like being a prophet to the nations, this starts somewhere very concrete. OK Jeremiah. Tell me what you see. Go outside, take a walk, have a good look at the world around you, and tell me what you see.
This is something Jeremiah can do. He’s able to observe. He can notice things. So this is what he does.
When we studied this scripture together, we stopped the reading right here and asked the same question. “What do you see?” When you look out on this world that you’re inheriting, that you’re growing up in, what catches your eye? Pastor Mark asked the class to reflect on the same question last week and included some of the comments in the liturgy this morning. You mentioned that you see diseases like Ebola, cruelty to animals, racism. I also remember you mentioning pollution, and cars everywhere. By the way, you’re welcome. These are our proud gifts to you as the next generation. Or, more appropriately, we should say, We’re sorry. This isn’t the kind of world we want. And if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, we should confess that sometimes we feel the same way you must feel about all these things. We see them in front of us, but we’re not quite sure how they got here. We’re pretty sure we can’t just blame the generation older than us, but we find ourselves tied up in these things in ways we’re not sure how to escape.
But you also saw positive things. The love of family and friends, antiobiotics, the work of the Humane Society. You also included that great source of joy – Ice cream. I find all your observations to be good ones. You are paying attention to the world. You’re aware of big things going on and also things in your own community. You see well.
And this is the beginning of any kind of life calling. You are asked to look, and see. You may feel yourself too young or too whatever to affect much of what is going on around you, but this is where you start.
One of the problems that we can run into as we keep growing up is that we can stop seeing things. We get so used to things being a certain way, that we stop noticing them, and just accept them for the way they are. Sort of like the doorbell that didn’t work on our previous house. Right when we moved in to that house, I noticed that the doorbell didn’t work, did some fiddling around with it, still couldn’t get it to work, so I took most of it off so people wouldn’t keep trying to ring it and wait, expecting us to hear something. But for some reason I left the back plate of the doorbell on the wall, where the rest of the device had been fastened. So, for a few years, we had this plastic plate screwed to the wall right outside our front door, obviously not a doorbell, but looking like a place where a doorbell should be. I stopped noticing it, but I’m sure people who came to our house for the first time looking to ring the doorbell had to pause and scratch their heads before finally knocking. When we moved to Columbus and looked at this house on Oakland Park I was pleased to discover that it had a functioning doorbell. I won’t go so far as to say that it sold us the house, but it was a nice perk.
When we ask you “what do you see?,” when we ask you to make observations about the kind of world you are growing up in, you have the unique ability to see things that some of the rest of us could very well have stopped paying attention to and stopped noticing altogether. You’re the ones who are fresh on the scene. You haven’t been taught yet not to see certain things. You raise important questions that others have stopped asking. What you see is important, and it’s important that you believe that what you see is important.
We need you to be able to see well. We need your eyes to look out and tell us what’s wrong, what’s right. What kinds of things have we just let linger, let hang on the wall, without finishing the job? You are young, but you do have something that many people don’t have anymore. Albert Einstein said something that relates here. He said, “The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them.” I take this to mean that those who have been surrounded by the problem for so long can become incapable of solving it. We need fresh eyes and fresh minds to bring a new way of seeing and thinking.
The first thing that Jeremiah sees is actually a part of a little joke that God is making. Jeremiah was getting all up tight about how big and serious and heavy his calling was, so God tries to kick things off on a lighter note. It’s kind of hard to get the joke in English, because it’s actually a Hebrew pun, playing around with the language. God asks Jeremiah what he sees, and the first thing Jeremiah sees when he looks around is the branch of an almond tree. Seems normal enough, not all that significant, except that the Hebrew word for almond tree is “shaqed”. Then God jumps in by saying, “You have seen well for I am watching over my word to perform it.” With the Hebrew word for “watching” being “shoqed.” “You see a shaqed, and I am shoqed over you.” It might be something like Jeremiah seeing an oak tree and God saying, “Yes, that right, with me beside you everything is going to be Oakay (OK).” One English translation tries to maintain the pun by saying that Jeremiah sees a stick, and God says God is going to stick with him. So now we all know that God has an awful very dry sense of humor.
But that’s a part of how Jeremiah is supposed to start seeing the world. He’s supposed to learn to see more than immediately meets the eye. Where some people see only what’s on the surface, he’s supposed to see deeper. See more layers of meaning.
Over the next number of years you’re going to keep growing in how you learn to see. Your education will involve people teaching you how to see, what to see. You’ll get to study sociology and government and economy and start making all these wonderful connections with what you’re learning and the way the world works, or doesn’t work. Your list of what you see will get longer and more complex.
Part of what we are trying to do as a church, as a faith community, is for all of us to be in constant training for our vision. Not just what we see, but how we see it. We’re trying to learn to see the world through the eyes of the prophets, through the eyes of Jesus. Jeremiah was told that he was appointed as a prophet to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant. We’re trying to learn together what needs to be pulled down and undone, and what needs to be nurtured and planted and tended. We’re trying to learn to see people as whole human beings the way Jesus did.
We believe that in some mysterious way God has a unique calling for each of you. So one of the ways we want to encourage you in that is to share these notebooks with you that contain different blessings that we’ve written. After a bit, we’ll ask you to come up front to receive these along with a blessing as you push out into this strange and wonderful next phase of life.