Text: Jeremiah 1:4-19
The opening chapter of Jeremiah narrates his call to be a prophet. It’s told in the first person. “Now the word of the Lord came to me.” In typical Hebrew Bible fashion, it’s not clear how “the word of the Lord” actually came. Whether it was through the voice of another person, a conviction heard inwardly, a message on the inside wrapping of a Dove chocolate. What’s clear is that the call reaches the young Jeremiah, and sets the trajectory of his life. The word of the Lord said, “I appoint you a prophet to the nations,” and this is what Jeremiah became.
A little over a year ago the chairs of the different CMC Commissions sat down together. We asked ourselves the question: What do we need to be paying attention to? What’s going on in the world, what’s going on in the congregation, what’s going on in our hearts, and might this point to some kind of overarching focus for the coming year? After filling up a white board with input, and giving space for silent reflection on what we had heard from one another, a strong consensus emerged that we need to be talking about race. Although we often hesitate to use this language, another way of saying this would be that through this shared discernment, the word of the Lord came to us. The word of the Lord came to us, gave us a calling, and set us on a trajectory.
During the season of Lent we had a worship theme of Trouble the Waters. We took a collective dive into the waters of white privilege, black lives matter, and a posture of antiracism. This month of October will be a similar worship theme. The prophet Jeremiah will be our tour guide as we ponder moving beyond an ideology of colorblindness, into racial consciousness, toward lives that reject and even disrupt racism and work for justice. I’m aware that the previous pastors, Steve and Susan Ortman Goering would regularly address difficult subjects, hot potatoes, during the month of October, so we carry on in that spirit.
One of the books informing my own thinking these days is written by Jennifer Harvey. It’s called Dear White Christians. Toward the beginning, she describes an exercise she uses with her college students. She asks them to imagine “what they would think if they saw a group of African American students walking across campus, carrying signs that stated, ‘Black is beautiful’” (p. 44). Students typically interpret a scene like this as an expression of community pride, a celebration of black identity, or perhaps a protest of some kind of recent injustice. Overall students register a positive, favorable response to such an expression.
Harvey then asks the students to imagine what their impressions might be if they saw a group of students carrying a sign saying, “White is beautiful.”
She notes that this is the point where students usually get pretty quiet, squirmy, shaking their heads. No, this isn’t OK.
Why? Harvey pushes. Don’t we want to include all kinds of diversity? Well, the students stumble, “calling white ‘beautiful’ seems like an endorsement of white supremacy or a rallying cry for the Ku Klux Klan.” Harvey writes: “They’re not sure why our commitment to diversity does not make it possible for these ‘white’ signs to communicate the same message as do the ‘Black’ signs. But they are very clear the signs are not the same” (p. 45).
Ta-Nehisi Coates also addresses this “not the same” dynamic in Between the World and Me, a book written as a letter to his 15 year old son. The historic problem, Coates makes clear, is not one of diversity, but one of abusive hierarchy. The whole impetus behind the very creation of racial categories was to establish a social hierarchy, and the legacy persists.
Coates’ language is direct. And it just so happens that in a quote addressing these matters he mentions Mennonites. Here’s what he says, using “the people” and “the new people” to refer to white folks. And remember, this is a letter written to his son.
“The process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible – this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white. These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning, divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white – Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish – and if our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again” (p. 7).
I don’t often pull in long quotes from books during sermons, but I want to bring in Harvey’s and Coates’ voices as a way of recognizing the broader cultural conversation happening right now. And as a way of more clearly naming the non-symmetrical nature of racialization. The problem is not primarily one of diversity, but one of hierarchy. And it persists. And we’re all caught up in it. And it reaches way down into the subconscious, and it manifests itself in small, and deadly ways.
All this amounts to what Harvey call the ‘moral crisis of whiteness.’ It’s not that there’s anything morally wrong with this beautiful, tan-able light skin. It’s that the category of ‘white’ is morally problematic.
When the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah, it says that the Lord put out a hand and touched Jeremiah’s 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 uproot and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
Eve has been doing some math homework with fractions, and so I notice that 4/6’s of the actions Jeremiah is called to do – which reduces to 2/3rds of the actions Jeremiah is called to do – are actually focused on un-doing. The metaphors are drawn from the familiar worlds of agriculture and construction. I appoint you to uproot, pull down, destroy, and overthrow, to build and to plant. The implication is that something has grown up which is detrimental to the health of the community. Some kind of moral edifice has been constructed which violates all manner of code and has been officially condemned as unsafe for occupancy. It’s not enough to simply plant and build. The first order of business, the larger and more difficult task, filling out a full 2/3rds of the job description, is demolition. Toppling over. Tearing things up by their roots. A great undoing.
To echo the language of Ta-Nehisi Coates, if whites folks, who were “something else before they were white,” are to fulfill hope and “become something else again,” giving up whiteness as an organizing identity, then it will take more than simply building something fresh or planting something new. It will involve some difficult and perhaps painful soul work. It will involve uprooting unconscious biases. It will involve pulling down and toppling systems which enable privilege to thrive unnamed. It will involve giving up power, listening, learning, giving up home field advantage regarding who sets the agenda for the work to be done. If Coates and Harvey are to be followed as they develop their arguments, it involves reparations for past harms. It involves walking toward pain rather than away from it, and walking toward the unknown. When things get undone, when the structures come down and the fields are cleared, the map starts to look pretty unfamiliar and confusing.
No wonder prophets drove people crazy. This isn’t fun. This isn’t how most people want to be spending their Thursday evenings.
And Jeremiah, frankly, wants nothing to do with the whole mess. He is definitely not a self-appointed prophet. Jeremiah’s response is that he’s too young, but the larger point is that he doesn’t want to do it. Period.
He follows in the grand tradition of Hebrew prophets actively resisting this call that comes at them from beyond. Moses claimed he couldn’t speak, Isaiah claimed he had unclean lips, Elijah and Jonah said they’d prefer to die – very dramatic stuff. It’s almost as if not wanting the job is the primary prerequisite for doing the Lord’s work. Resistance to the call is a sign that you are indeed called. That way the ego is already out of the way. The primary obstacle is already removed. It’s not about you, it’s so much bigger than that. Maybe that’s half the work of the first 2/3rds, which I believe amounts to 1/3rd of the overall work. To see if all the math is right you can check the church website which is doing a real time fact check of today’s service.
So what does Jeremiah get out of this? What’s in it for him? When you’re trying to convince someone to get on board with a project you’re supposed to appeal to their self-interest. So how is this call going to help Jeremiah?
Well, if Jeremiah could peak ahead and see how all this was going to unfold, he might struggle to see how his self-interest was being met. He lived during a time of national deconstruction, when the great emerging empire of the time, the Babylonians, would come and conquer his people and carry them off into exile. Jeremiah himself would eventually flee to Egypt. He’s not called the weeping prophet for nothing. He lived during a period of national travail, and it didn’t get sorted out in his lifetime.
But one thing he does gain from his eventual Yes to this project, shows up already in chapter one. After the initial call, and the no, I’m too young, and the do not be afraid for I am with you, and the divine hand reaching out to touch Jeremiah’s lips, and the assignment of uprooting and knocking down and building up, after that rather overwhelming sequence after which it’s not clear at all how Jeremiah would take even the first step toward fulfilling this call…after this, Jeremiah is asked a very simple question:
Verse 11 of chapter 1: “The word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Jeremiah, what do you see?’”
What do you see, Jeremiah? What do you see? Not what’s you plan? What are you going to do? When are you going to do it? It will come to that soon enough. But first, What do you see? Take a look around. Go outside and walk around the block. Drive around the neighborhood. Drive around somebody else’s neighborhood. Take your time. What do you see? Make an observation. Notice something. Pay a little closer attention than you have before and tell me, What do you see?
Getting on board with the word of the Lord means that Jeremiah gets to see things he would not have seen otherwise. He gets to open his eyes, look, and see. What’s he’s going to see isn’t always going to be easy to look at. It might be about 2/3rds devastating and 1/3rd beautiful. But he is given the gift of sight.
Jesus will have a similar invitation to his followers when he will say, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you have seen. For many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (Luke 10:23-24).
One of the features of how racism persists in our time is that it thrives on blindness. It manages to be outrageously obvious to those who experience it, while at the same time being nearly invisible to those who don’t. It requires blindness and forgetfulness of history in order to stay alive.
And so a first question to those who accept the call to uproot and tear down, and build up, is What do you see? And if you don’t see anything, if all we see is our own blindness, then that’s a pretty honest place to start.
Look around. Pay attention. Do not be afraid. What do you see?