In this morning’s Scripture, God speaks to Jeremiah – a young man, a youth – and says: “I have appointed you over nations and empires: to pluck up and pull down; to destroy and to overthrow; to build and to plant.” With a call like that, who among us wouldn’t be a little intimidated, a little scared? Who among us wouldn’t say, “Uh, I’m sorry, I don’t think I’m really up for that.”
Now we might be tempted to think, Oh, but this is Jeremiah – the Old Testament prophet. That’s what Jeremiah does, this prophet thing. He rails against nations – he calls them out – he laments. But remember, this is Jeremiah’s call story – this is the very beginning for Jeremiah – before he’s actually done any of that. We know that he will be engaging the powers in his world for years: His life and work span the lives of at least three kings. Jeremiah lives through King Josiah – the reformer king – who genuinely tries to do things right – some high points in the life of Judah. And then Jeremiah is there for the steep ride down, with the king that follows – a rapid descent back into oppression and exploitation – and his nation’s fall to an invading empire.
But here, in Jeremiah chapter 1, verse 6, at the beginning, as Jeremiah says, he’s just a boy. He’s a young man, a youth, familiar with the troubles of his world, but standing on the threshold of the life that lies before him. And God says, “I appoint you over nations and empires: to pluck up and to pull down; to destroy and to overthrow; to build and to plant.” With a call like that, who among us wouldn’t be a little intimidated, a little scared?
Jeremiah stands at two thresholds. The more global one is the threshold of the prophetic imagination – the uncertainty of the movements and powers at work in his troubled world. Where in the world are we headed?
And then there is the more particular – the threshold of calling – the particular future that is opening up even now in a particular life for a particular person as they move into that uncertain world – as they move into their life.
The threshold of the prophetic imagination, and
The threshold of calling.
Let’s take those one by one.
Now, “the threshold of the prophetic imagination” – just the phrase sounds a bit intimidating. But this concept – “the prophetic imagination,” which comes from Walter Brueggemann – is one of the most useful ways I’ve found of trying understand the prophets, the prophetic books of the Bible – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and so on. Every year, the lectionary gives us some suggested Scripture readings for worship – and each year we spend some time with a specific Gospel and different parts of the Bible. This year – you may have figured out already – we’re spending time with the Gospel of Luke – and, we’ll be spending some time with the prophets.
I think the prophets can feel pretty inaccessible. A lot of the time – they rail and wail – doom and gloom – fire and brimstone. Where’s the hope in that? How do we even get a toehold in all that to find a word for today?
Well, what Walter Brueggemann says is this – the prophetic imagination (the prophet) essentially does two things – the prophetic imagination looks around the world as it is and (1) it announces what’s wrong in the world and says it must come to an end, and (2) it does that to make way for the new thing that God is doing even now. (1) Something must come to an end, (2) so that something new can come to life. Oppression must give way so that freedom can be born.
This is a word of hope. God is not bound to the structures and powers that currently hold sway. God is free to tear down what must come down. God is free to build and plant a new world, a new creation. The prophetic imagination looks with clear and honest eyes at the world as it is and envisions “an alternative consciousness,” an alternative community. The prophetic imagination responds to the cry of a people hurting in the world as it is, and calls to life a world where all can live free. As Kenyatta Gilbert says, the prophetic imagination invites us “to pull down the forces that frustrate God’s will for life. And then it calls all those who would help rebuild lives in a broken world.”
So as we spend some time with the prophets this year, every time we come to them, I want us to ask two questions in what we find there:
1. What is wrong and must be dismantled and torn down?
2. What new thing is coming to life?
God invites Jeremiah into that worthy work –
to pluck up and pull down;
to destroy and to overthrow;
to build and to plant.
In the midst of the threshold of the prophetic imagination – what God is doing in the world even now – Jeremiah also stands at the threshold of his calling. God says, I’ve created you to be a part of all this – the liberating and rebuilding of the world. And Jeremiah responds, How can that even be possible?
Now even this simple world “calling” may need some unpacking. When we read it in stories like this, it can be easy to think, Oh that kind of calling – God having a purpose like that for our lives – that’s just for prophets – or maybe, for religious professionals. But it’s something more universal than that. Remember, as they were experiencing their calling, Moses and David were shepherds keeping watch over their flock; Jeremiah was an ordinary boy, and Mary was an ordinary girl; the disciples were fisherman and tax collectors – each of them, at some point, standing at the threshold of their calling.
Maybe we could use the word vocation – that’s really just the Latin version of calling – but even that might narrow our thinking too much to professions – to professional vocations. At one point when I was considering a job change, I read this book – “Designing Your Life” – it’s a more contemporary, Silicon-Valley way of thinking about calling. The writers from the Stanford Design School suggest using design principles to think of how we collaboratively design a life that uses our gifts, our passions, our longings to serve the world.
Calling is the sense of who you are created to be in the world, and what you are to do. Last week, we talked about how we are all fearfully and wonderfully made, woven together in the Body of Christ. Calling is about how we are fearfully and wonderfully made – each one of us – the particularity of us – the particularity of you – how you are fearfully and wonderfully made and how that shows up in the world. Calling is about asking the question: Who has God created you to be in the world, and what are we to do with that?
Jeremiah stands at the threshold of his calling. God says, I’m at work in the world, and I want you to be a part of that – the tearing down and the building up – the freedom and well-being of all people – Jeremiah, I need you to speak truth to power. And Jeremiah says: I’m but a boy; I don’t know how to speak. And look at God’s reply:
I know you. Jeremiah.
I’ve known you from before you were born. When you were in the womb, I knew you, and I created you. It even sounds like Psalm 139 from last week – I knit you together in your mother’s womb. I created you for this.
And then God says: And I am with you, even now, even as you move out into your life. To all whom I send you, you’ll go; and what I give you to say, you’ll say. I will be with you to deliver you. And then God reaches out their hand – so intimate – and touches Jeremiah’s mouth – and says, “Today, I put my words in your mouth.”
In the threshold of calling, God calls us to bring all of who we are created to be into the fullness of the life we live – and to join together in a shared life of rebuilding and reshaping a world where all live free. God creates us, and calls us, and accompanies us, and empowers us, inviting us to become all we are created to be in the world – for the sake of the world.
I’ve been thinking about a couple of things that happened this past week. As we announced last Sunday, on Tuesday, there was a big meeting of the Marin Housing Authority. It was a culmination in the long efforts of public-housing residents at Golden Gate Village to have some say in how their homes are managed and renovated from the current state of extreme disrepair. They’ve been at this for a long time – 3 or 4 years ago, I remember, the residents were gathering folks in protest, across the street from the Marin Civic Center, just trying to get their voices heard in the halls of power. Over the past two years, there have been meetings after meetings of the Supervisors and the Housing Authority as the residents have spoken up – and as the Supervisors have just sat silently, stoically, proceeding with their own plans.
But Royce McLemore and the Golden Gate Village Residents Council kept gathering folks and building a community – speaking up at meeting after meeting. And gradually, folks from communities all over Marin – including ours – started listening, went on tours of the living conditions at Golden Gate Village, and learned, and started joining the crowd of those who were speaking up.
And on Tuesday, the Residents Council finally got to present their plan. For more than an hour at the Housing Authority Meeting, they had the floor. Royce McLemore presented the Residents Council’s plan, with their architects, and lawyers, and experts. And then Golden Gate Village Residents spoke up – and then community members – Marin City clergy spoke – and folks from all over Marin County spoke up. From our congregation Tom McAfee, Barbara Rothkrug, Peter Anderson, Lindsey McLorg spoke up, and when the Supervisors closed public comment, Sue Neil, Ron Vestal, Bonnie Kunstler, Royce Truex and others were still in line. With a community gathered over several years of steady work, the Golden Gate Village Residents spoke of what needed to come to an end, and advocated for a future of self-determination and rebuilding.
I’ve been thinking of how our callings come together – how they converge – how that weaving-together that Psalm 139 mentions – how that continues throughout our lives. And I’ve been thinking how our callings continue even beyond our lives. In the Wednesday morning support group, we’re starting to read a book by John Lewis – and in the early pages, he reminds us that the work we do won’t be completed in our lifetime. I’ve heard that before, but for the first time I thought, “Of course, of course, the work isn’t completed in our lifetime because if it was what would be left for the generations who follow to do.” Our calling is to do our part.
A little over a week ago, April Hewes called to let me know that a seminary family was having a baby, and to ask if the Deacons could help provide meals. We sent that request on to Mary and Lisa and Anne Poore and the Deacons, and they said, “Of course!” And a week ago, on Thursday and Friday, the seminary community brought the family meals, and on Saturday and Sunday, our Deacons brought them meals, and somewhere in there a little girl was born, and her older brothers and sisters had hot meals, while Mom and Dad did the new-baby mom-and-dad things. And I’ve wondered – this little girl – what is she fearfully and wonderfully created to be and do – how will her life flow out from all these lives and all this love?
On Thursday, Mary Waetjen forward me an opinion piece that Amanda Gorman wrote in the New York Times, reflecting back on the poem she wrote for and then read at last year’s presidential inauguration. Do you know she almost backed out from reading her poem?
Amanda Gorman writes that she almost declined to be the inaugural poet because... she was scared. Terrified. “Scared,” she says, “of failing my people, of failing my poetry.” And there was COVID. And also, she knew she would become a highly visible Black person, with no Secret Service, speaking at the Capitol just days after White Supremacists had stormed the Capitol.
Amanda Gorman thought long and hard – thought about her fear – and came to this realization: “I look at fear not as cowardice but as a call forward, a summons to fight for what we hold dear. Now, more than ever we have the right to be affected, afflicted, affronted. If you’re alive, you’re afraid. If you’re not afraid, then you’re not paying attention. The only thing we have to fear is having no fear itself – having no feeling on behalf of whom and what we’ve lost, on behalf of whom and what we love.” She listened to the call of her ancestors who had fought for freedom, and Amanda Gorman read her poem.
Reflecting on the year that has passed since that momentous day, here is what she says that she found: “What I found waiting beyond my fear was every person who searched beyond their own fears to find space for hope in their lives, who welcomed the impact of a poem into protests, hospitals, classrooms, conversation, living rooms, offices, art and all manner of moments. I may have worked on the words, but it was other people who put those words to work.”
At the threshold of the prophetic imagination and the threshold of our calling, God calls us to engage the work of remaking a world. That means dismantling destructive powers. That means planting and building something new. That also means being honest enough – and brave enough – to look at ourselves and to see what we can do. To speak and to love. To pluck up and to pull down. To dismantle and to overthrow. To build and to plant. And to do all that ... with God’s help... together.
© 2022 Scott Clark
 For general background on Jeremiah and this text, see Patrick L. Miller, “The Book of Jeremiah,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. vi (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), pp. 579-89.  Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1978)  Id. at 18.  See Kenyatta Gilbert, Commentary in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, Year C (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), pp.78-79.  John Lewis, Across the Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America (New York: Hachette Press, 2012, 2017, 2021).  Amanda Gorman, “Why I Almost Didn’t Read My Poem at the Inauguration, New York Times, January 20, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/20/opinion/amanda-gorman-poem-inauguration.html
Photo Credit: Johnny Gios, used with permission via Unsplash.com