We live in that tension place between really loving nature and the things that resemble Eden and the desire for things like flush toilets and health care and the relative ease of heat in the winter and cooling in the summer. As we explore the themes of paradise this year, we hold these things in tension.
The other reason I loved the PBS series is because it is in nature that I first truly discovered God. Now, I had heard of God in church and I had even read the Bible a little bit. But my youth pastor in Cleveland had a transformative experience with Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School, so he decided that our church youth experience needed to be focused on outdoor education. We went on weekend retreats in all seasons and learned to do group building initiatives on high and low ropes courses. In the summer months, we went on backpacking trips to places like Zion National Park, Glacier National Park, and the Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia. We visited with the Amish, the Hutterites, the Mormons and even the Jesus people in the streets of Minneapolis back in the late 70’s. I learned to love nature, live simply and see myself as a piece of the larger fabric of life. I also learned that to survive in the woods, your group needed to work together. That meant you needed to treat each other right, which is a good lesson to learn.
Rivers, like life, flow downstream and eventually connect with a large body of water. Nature is one of the rivers of my life and the lessons I learned there have mingled with the waters from other rivers of learning and experience. For the rest of this calendar year, we’ll look at the different rivers that flow from us and into the common river that we all share. Today, I want to look at a river of vision.
I want us to look at this in a rather selfish way for me. You see, twenty years ago on the first Sunday in October, I was ordained. I had the occasion to watch the ceremony on a grainy videotape this past week. I saw a much younger guy on the tape. I also saw friends and family, some of whom no longer walk this earth. A young David Parajon (who is now an ABC missionary in Nicaragua) read scripture in Spanish. My grandfather participated as did several friends and colleagues I still find close to me today.
I was fresh on the heels of a harrowing ordeal in my ordination process. The short story was that it took me three ordination councils and one commissioning to finally get the credential. I was not orthodox enough for some and I was also too young, arrogant and inexperienced to know how to have just the right comeback to insulting statements questioning my calling to the ministry.
My pastor, George Williamson from Granville, Ohio preached the sermon on this very text from the call of Jeremiah. He said that I reminded him of Jeremiah. Great. He thought of me as the most unlovable, stubborn, shunned and moody of all of the prophets. Jeremiah hated being a prophet. And the truth be told, I have hated it too at times—especially when saying a prophetic thing cost me friends or at least the relative comfort and deference that often accompanies the office of clergy. I really just want to be a likeable pastor, like pastor Invest of Lake Wobegon.
Yet, like Jeremiah, there is this piece of me at times that yanks and pulls and reminds me to beware of the seduction of comfort, especially for those whose race, gender, education, circumstance, sexual orientation and status might create blinders to the plights of others and the vision of God. What’s that line? “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
My spiritual coming of age happened in Nicaragua. I went to Nicaragua for the fist time in 1984 and saw among the people a level of poverty and heard them tell their history of terror from a military dictatorship propped up by my tax dollars. And yet in them I also saw a joy and a depth of spirituality that was profound and moving. They saw the Gospel stories as having present relevance instead of trite ancient stories. The Gospel told them to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Rather than seeing religion as the opiate of the people where we were all became comfortable in our prejudices, I began to see that the church could actually be a place of justice seeking and peacemaking. The river of God’s vision was one where justice and peace mattered as much if not more than comfort and consolation.
Jeremiah was called to predict the fall of Jerusalem. Jeremiah was a preacher who was called to pluck up and destroy. He was to be the one who called people on their idolatry and told them to shape up lest they be shipped out to exile.
We can think of a whole lot of things to be thrown down and broken down and overthrown. Things like racism, homophobia, sexism, me firstism, terrorism, third-world debt, dependence upon oil, the fact that we have abandoned the earth’s ecosystem, the fallacy that we can save ourselves by bombing the hell out of someone else, the fallacy that violence saves, the faithless arrogance of materialism and all that it brings with it, the lying and bickering that substitutes for dialogue and political discourse.
They did not shape up. The temple was destroyed. The people were sent off into exile and poor lonely Jeremiah was not allowed to go with them. He had to flee to Egypt, adding insult to injury. I really don’t want to be a Jeremiah.
And yet, as I look back on the first 20 years of my ministry, I have found myself at times shipped out, stripped of positions and power and influence. I have seen myself and those I love disregarded and degraded all because we wanted to hold out for a better idea of life and ministry. It’s happened to us, too. That’s why we travel to Rochester, NY for our regional ABC meetings. And yet when we gather with other misfits like us, we find we’re not the minority we thought we were. We find blessed inspiration and help to wade through the swamps of our self-doubt. We get back onto that vision river.
Jeremiah wrote his words later in his life. I think of the first chapter as a recalling of how he was back then. He was full of excuses. He starts out by saying he’s too young. We’ve been there. We’ve been told that we’re too inexperienced, too naïve, too innocent to weigh in on the weightier matters of the world. And yet wasn’t Joan of Arc no more that 12? Wasn’t Mary about the same age? Wasn’t Martin Luther King in his mid 20’s when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott? Didn’t Jesus accomplish a whole lot before the age of 33?
I was 28 when I started my ministry and I thought I knew a lot. I didn’t. I knew a lot of theology from seminary, but I did not know a lot of theology of living in poverty in Hartford, my first church. That I learned in the church, at people’s bedsides, in the neighborhood where people lived in segregated schools and shootings were a common occurrence. I learned about how people clung to scripture and the solidity of the eternal truths of the faith as a coping mechanism for the chaos that is out there. I also learned about the complexity of racism and the way disadvantaged poor people can fight against each other, to the delight of the power-brokers who never get their position challenged.
Jeremiah was a priest, but his bedside manner left a lot to be desired. He pretty much alienated everyone. Maybe I’m not a Jeremiah. Maybe I am.
The second thing he said, in retrospect, was that he didn’t have anything to say. I was like that too. I went to seminary to do social justice work or to be a pastoral counselor. I did not see myself as a preacher because I didn’t think I had anything to say, or at least I didn’t think I could say it very well. The fact is that I hated my first social justice job, which consisted largely of stuffing envelopes. I felt that counseling was a good thing for me to do, but it wasn’t going to fit my need for justice work. Let’s see, where can you combine justice work and counseling?
So, reluctantly I went into the pastoral ministry and I fumbled around trying to find my voice as a preacher. My first hundred sermons were earnest, scholarly and spiritually mediocre. I hope I have been able to listen to constructive criticism along the way and get a little bit better. What I have learned about preaching is that it is an exercise in attentive living. It’s about making sense of this world around us and asking about God’s presence and wondering about God’s desires for us.
In San Francisco, the church I served shared worship space and eventually worship services with a Methodist congregation. The pastor and I would meet each week along with members of the congregations and come up with real creative ways to get the message across. I was real lucky in that I got to hear her preach half of the time. I really enjoy working with UBC’s Worship Planning Team as we come up with audacious topics such as Subversive Spirituality, Whose Gospel is it Anyway?, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, The Illegitimacy of Jesus, Imagine That, and even Rivers of Paradise. The group and the congregation push us deeper and have us address things we would not usually address. This is a mark of a really brave church.
Then we get to the really hard part of Jeremiah’s call. He says, in retrospect, “I’m afraid.” Been there, done that. I’m still there a lot of the time. But what he was most afraid of was being alone.
His poetic whinings make up over half of his book and the entire book of Lamentations. Here’s an excerpt from the 20th chapter of his book:
I have become a laughingstock all day long;
Everyone mocks me,
For whenever I speak I must cry out, I must shout ‘violence and destruction.’
For the word of YHWH has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.
And whose fault is this? It’s God’s fault. God won’t let him go and let him be. Jeremiah lived in a constant dark night of the spiritual soul. God looked like a tyrant and like an abused spouse who could not leave, Jeremiah continued to speak on behalf of God, living out his anti-social and morose spirituality with a vengeance that no one could take.
And yet, God spoke a truth Jeremiah could not deny. And it took forlorn and lonely Jeremiah to tell it like it is. The best part of the book is not the judgments against Judah. It’s Jeremiah’s struggle with his sense of call. It’s his blatant and bare-knuckle arguing with God and his insatiable need to live with integrity.
If I say, ‘I will not mention God.
Or speak anymore in God’s name,’
There is within me something like a burning fire shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in and I cannot.”
This is the kernel of truth from God that is in our bones, all of our bones. It is the fire inside. It begs to come out. And when we feel like we are alone (and sometimes we are), we hear this word of assurance from God:
“Don’t be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” Says YHWH(1:8). It was the only promise he ever received in his life. Jeremiah was abandoned by his friends and family. When he tried to stop preaching God confronted him again. God said: “Gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. Do not break down before them…I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar, a bronze wall, against the whole land—against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you; but they will not prevail against you, for I am with you to deliver you.” (Jeremiah 1:17-19)
Here’s the good news. If God can call young, scared, inarticulate, lonely Jeremiah, what can God do with us? As George Williamson put it: “Jeremiah was crazy, anti-social, neurotic as a weasel, paranoid. He was impulsive, often exercising terrible judgment and an even worse temper. He alienated everybody, absolutely everybody. It is this man who late in his life can testify that God has said to him, “I know you. Since before you were born I know you. I know your craziness, your paranoia, know your neurosis, your temper, your manic-depressive tendencies and incurable unpopularity. I know your total inability to succeed at anything, your exhibitionism, your need to offend and to sabotage yourself. Since before you were born I know you. And it is you I choose.” (Jeremiah Go, September 9, 2001 FBC Granville)
We have all had to speak the truth when we don’t want to. It’s cost us, like it cost Jeremiah. And yet when we speak that truth, we connect with that higher power that restores us to sanity. It’s like we graft ourselves to another reality and we free ourselves from the shackles of self-doubt and short-sightedness and even naiveté. It’s a river of vision that guides, holds and carries us until we join with another river on the way to a better future. The river of vision is not one that we have. The river of vision is one that God has and is grafted on to our lives.
If I were honest about all of my prophetic and pathetic wanderings over the years, the truth is that I could do none of it without the support and help of the church community. This is where Jeremiah and I differ. Whereas Jeremiah was abandoned by everyone, and I mean everyone except for God, I cling to and am buoyed by people like you. I’ve been that way throughout my life and my ministry. If my ministry is worth anything, it is as much about saying the prophetic word now and again as it is to create and nurture a caring community of people, inspired by God not only to tear down and destroy systems of evil, but also to build and to plant gardens that make for a bit of paradise on this earth—those places where we can find respite and affirmation and welcome and challenge and nurture and through it all some blessed hope. It makes it possible for us all to face the world.
And I hope that as I look forward to the next 20 years of my ministry, it will move further away from Jeremiah’s anti-social misfirings but not from the clarity of his sense of God’s vision for him.
I give thanks for the people who have moved into and out of my life. I give thanks for the ministry we share. I hope and pray that together we may continue to love mercy, do justice and walk humbly with God. May we flow together along the river that is the vision of God, and may we water this earth with love, mercy, compassion, justice, peace and promise.