[A sermon partly on Jeremiah 1:4-10, delivered at a small church in southern Indiana]
We’re continuing to look at stories of God’s calling in the Bible; this is the prophet Jeremiah’s autobiographical account of his call, which came in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah, in the late 7th century, and whose career spanned the forty years until the destruction of Jerusalem and the final deportation of the people of Judah to Babylonia in 586 BCE. The prophet Jeremiah did not have an easy or a pleasant time, either in the content of his message or in the way it was received by his contemporaries, as we might know. Jeremiah 1:4-10 is the beginning of the story.
Most of us probably consider efficiency and effectiveness – the principle of getting results, ideally with the least expenditure – pretty important values. Most of us think about how to run errands, for instance, so we wouldn’t drive out to WalMart for something and then downtown to the library to drop off books and then back to the Five Star across from WalMart to get gas … that would be a waste of time and money. We’re inclined to spend the most time and effort on the things that people are going to notice and care about – I don’t know about everyone else, but if I get short on time, I will definitely mow the front yard first … and most of us put some thought into not wasting things, like our time or our effort or our money …
Some people probably take this a little too far. For instance – this actually happened some years ago in the Bronx – kidnappers called up their victim’s wife with a $100,000 ransom demand, and she negotiated with them to reduce the amount to $30,000, which she then paid. The police caught the kidnappers, and recovered the money in the end, and the woman’s husband was returned unharmed … but I don’t know whether the victim was more overjoyed at his wife’s negotiating skills, or more concerned that she didn’t agree to the full demand right away!
But one thing we see in these two scripture texts, one from the ministry of Jeremiah, the other from the ministry of Jesus, texts separated by about 600 or 650 years, and at first glance very different, but one thing we see in them both is that God doesn’t really honor that efficiency principle. God’s methods include extravagance and excess that goes way beyond what we would probably consider reasonable …
Take Jeremiah: What we hear in Jeremiah’s experience is God’s insistent, painstaking, intimate creative relationship to Jeremiah. God tells Jeremiah “I knew you before you even began,” I formed you in the womb, I made plans for you, and I gave you this very very specific job … this job has basically had your name on it since I created the position … I tailor made it for you, and I tailor made you for it … We get the impression that God has taken considerable care to make sure that Jeremiah has whatever special talents and abilities he needs to carry out this consecrated mission. Even God’s announcement is carefully worded and word-smithed, to name four things God did in the past (knew, formed, consecrated and appointed), four things God will do in the future (send, command, be with, and deliver), and four things God does during this episode, in the present (reach out, touch, speak, and appoint) – which anyone thinking about arithmetic will notice is a perfect Biblical number, the number 12, so God is paying careful attention to detail here, making everything as auspicious as possible for Jeremiah.
And if we know more about Jeremiah’s story, we won’t be able to help thinking that this is God spending way more time and energy and care than necessary on something that isn’t going to get any results, at least in Jeremiah’s immediate context. Because Jeremiah is going to prophesy to the people of Judah, and they’re not going to listen; in fact, they’re going to tell him to shut up, and they’re going to ask the authorities to lock him up and execute him for saying bad things about them and about the Temple; he’s going to send a scroll of all his prophecies to the king, and the king is going to cut it up and burn it. No one is going to pay any attention, and none of his prophecies are going to make any difference to those people … no results at all.
Of course, they are going to make lots of difference to us, who read them today, and they have made a difference to all the readers of scripture between Jeremiah’s time and our own, so, for something like 2500 years the descendants , including Jesus, of the people who didn’t listen to Jeremiah; and then all the other nations who have adopted him as their prophet, all the Christians, and all the Muslims, have been taking Jeremiah’s messages from God seriously. In fact, considering how popular Jeremiah’s words have become with the people who put up “billboards from God,” I imagine even hundreds or thousands of atheists and agnostics have been confronted with Jeremiah’s words … so God’s announcement to Jeremiah that he will be a prophet to the nations has been amply fulfilled, hundreds and thousands of times over, although Jeremiah did not see any of this in his lifetime …
which is part of the problem with our human perspective, it’s limited compared to God’s, which is vast and eternal, and with our perspective on resources, which we think of as scarce, but which for God really seem to be unlimited. So this divine extravagance and attention to detail and spending incredible care on one individual for the sake of one task … this might need to remind us that something is going on in God’s world, all of God’s lavish activity is leading up to something, even if we don’t experience it directly ourselves, or even imagine how it is going to work out for the best.
But this is one person’s story, and this one person is a fairly special person. Should we assume God is this involved with everyone? Does God invest lots of resources in … we might say … regular people?
Honestly, I think we do need to think this, and one piece of evidence we have for this is Jesus’ parable of the sower. In the past, people would read this parable and focus on the different kinds of soil in the story, and the different kinds of people they represent, and would get rather concerned about what kind of people they were, or we are, and whether we are the good kind of soil or not. And this makes sense, we naturally think about ourselves in this way … but … this may not actually be the main point of this story, which Jesus is sharing with the disciples, who are being trained to communicate Jesus’ message, since the emphasis in this whole chapter is on the word of God and the message of the kingdom of God. This parable really seems to have something to do with the way the message of the kingdom of God is delivered to the world …
And from that perspective, whether we think God is the sower, or we think Jesus is the sower, or we think some disciple is supposed to be the sower, what we notice is that the sower is extravagant with this word of the kingdom of God, this sower throws seed everywhere, just throws it out there … so it lands wherever, the sower makes no effort whatsoever, as far as we can tell, to make sure it gets to or on what we would think of as “the right place.”
This is not how we would plant our gardens, even our flower gardens; we would get our seed packet, and we would carefully place our marigold seeds or our basil seeds or our tomato starts in rows in earth we had tilled and fertilized … we wouldn’t toss them on the driveway or into the woods, because we wouldn’t get any results that way. Certainly not this growing season. Maybe, over time … maybe over a very very long time … those seeds planted in the “wrong” place will end up in new and different places; or the soil will change; the conditions will change; so even these seemingly fruitless seeds may produce more results than we know. And the results the sower does get are pretty impressive, at least for the ancient world.
But honestly, the results don’t seem to be the primary thing this sower has in mind in this parable. In this parable, the emphasis is on the action of sowing: this sower’s job is to get that seed out there, as much as possible, it seems, so, wherever …
Because remember that here Jesus already slipped by us the idea that the seed represents the “word of the kingdom.” And the word of the kingdom is not just, literally, words, but the news of the kingdom of God, the news that there is a different way to live, even in our own world, the evidence for a new way of life; it is as much action as talk; as the great ends of the church have it, it’s about “the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world,” which is one of the jobs of the church.
So while the clear fact that God is extravagant probably doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think about efficiency when we run our errands, or that we should literally plant our own fields by throwing seed all over the place, it does have some implications for the way we live, the way we “exhibit the kingdom of heaven to the world,” the way we get that message of what it means to be Christian out there. And the implication seems to be that we don’t do “target marketing,” we don’t try to arrange an audience of the “right people” for our witness, we don’t restrict our witness to people who will do something worthwhile with it, we just deliver the message …
Just as Jeremiah was a prophet to the nations, we are prophets to the nations, too, in a way; and the idea is to fling that message out there: because the message of the kingdom of God is a message about living a kind of way: living with love, with forgiveness, with compassion, with justice and mercy. And because that is a way of life we seek to live all the time, we don’t restrict that just to our friends, or fellow Christians, or “good prospects,” we just live that way, for anyone to notice.
For example, some years ago, true story, Adi Walujo, a pastor of the Javanese Mennonite church in Indonesia, showed up at the door of his church one Sunday morning and was met by a delegation of local Muslim leaders with a piece of paper basically barring the congregation from using their church building. Remember that Indonesia is a multi-cultural and multi-religious nation, and there has been a lot of tension among religious communities during its history. So in this village on this occasion, the Muslim village leaders had the upper hand, and were trying to get the Christians to leave. So the congregation decided that they would continue to worship, and since they couldn’t meet inside they met outside in the church courtyard. They did this for about eight months, rain or shine; and during this time, they kept trying to work things out with the local village council, but for a long time they didn’t have much success.
Now as it turned out, there was a well on the church property, and this well provided water to many members of the local community, and many of these people were Muslims. So during all of this time, the well continued to operate, the Christians never thought about cutting off the water supply to their neighbors, or using the water supply as a negotiating point – I suppose that housewife in the Bronx would have had some advice for them, but I don’t think they would have taken it – and finally, after nearly a year of this, the neighbors started to advocate for the church, pointing out that they were benefitting from the water at the Christian church, and urging their leadership to drop the blockade of the church. So the upshot of the episode was that the church got its building back, and in the process developed an even better relationship with their Muslim neighbors than they had had before, and were even able to take the step of putting a cross on the outside of the building, which they hadn’t done before this time … and all as a result of taking the extravagant approach, of living out the kingdom of God regardless of the audience, regardless of the consequences, sowing the word of the kingdom … wherever
Here’s what the catechism of the Presbyterian church
has to say about that: in answer to the question “How should I treat non-Christians and people of other religions?” the answer is:
“As much as I can, I should meet friendship with friendship, hostility with kindness, generosity with gratitude, persecution with forbearance, truth with agreement, and error with truth. I should express my faith with humility and devotion as the occasion requires, whether silently or openly, boldly or meekly, by word or by deed. I should avoid compromising the truth on the one hand and being narrow-minded on the other. In short, I should always welcome and accept these others in a way that honors and reflects the Lord’s welcome and acceptance of me.”
The Lord’s welcome and acceptance of me, which I know has been … extravagant.
In other words, we live out our mission to live lives of people made in the image of God, people who are followers of Jesus Christ, people who have felt the touch of God’s extravagant grace poured out in the life and ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, people who know that our own lives and our own perspective on them are limited, but that when it comes to life and love itself, the life and love that comes from God and that God is and shares with us, that is literally limitless … it is in infinite supply … and our mission, the one for which we have been painstakingly prepared, is to live that life and share that love extravagantly, like the Christ we follow, and the God in whose image we are made.