January 31, 2016
I love it when the lectionary brings old Jeremiah around again; he is my very favorite prophet from the Hebrew Bible. That is so for too many reasons to enumerate in one short article, but they include the fact that he is painfully real in his reactions to his task. He spends his whole life in God's service, not without grumbling and wondering aloud about the job, and expresses a genuine desire to have done something very different than this prophecy thing. In short, he sounds like a far more honest version of my less than honest self.
I fell into a call from God when I heard my now wife of forty-six years tell me that she could never marry anyone who was not a Methodist minister (she actually did say that — I lie not!). What she and I discovered nearly twenty years after my ordination was that that was not quite what she meant. What she actually meant was that she wanted to be a Methodist minister, and in fact became one, serving wonderfully for twenty years before her retirement five years ago. But in the meanwhile, I briefly served a parish, spent three years teaching undergraduates the Bible, and thirty-three years trying to teach Bible and Homiletics to seminary students. So, forty-five years after my ordination, here I am a retired faculty person (emeritus is the technical term — theologians always say in Latin or Greek what they could more easily say in English), and still wondering just what this call from God, delivered in part by my confused wife, meant for me and means for me now.
My early life was far different than Jeremiah's. He was born and raised in a retired preacher's home in Anathoth. That obscure village is where Solomon banished the priest, Abiathar, after that unfortunate holy man chose the wrong horse in the struggle for power after the death of the great David. He picked the eldest son, Adonijah, but Bathsheba and Nathan had other plans, concocting a ruse to ensure that her son, Solomon, ascended the throne. The plot worked, and Solomon proceeded to murder all of his rivals, General Joab and his brother Adonijah chief among them, but he allowed the priest Abiathar life-long banishment. He no doubt counted himself very lucky indeed. Jeremiah was born there, among a gaggle of priests, hearing every day of the Israelite saints like Moses and Joshua and David. His head rang with the stories that made the people who they were; what else could he become but some sort of religious professional?
Not me! My early life involved very little church and no talk of things religious at all. I did not attend any church until I went to college, and only then because all choir members were required to sing in chapel every Sunday if they wanted to remain in the choir; I did. So I sang in the college chapel. Most days in those long ago 1960s there were far more choir members than congregants as Sunday mornings became times for sleep and not worship for the great majority of my classmates. So when God's call came through the lovely mouth of my future wife, I hardly knew what to say.
But Jeremiah knew what to say when God gave to him the expected call to ministry. He was having none of it! "Ah, Adonai YHWH! I know nothing of speaking since I am only a young boy!" (Jer. 1:4) He, of course, framed his rejection in the familiar words of Moses at the burning bush, the famous prophet's fourth increasingly lame excuse for why he had no intention of heading back to Egypt to get the people out of that hellhole. Moses' rejection was far more eloquent, ironically belying his very words! "O YHWH! I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor especially now that you have spoken to your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue" (Ex. 4:10). One of the best and most hilarious results of this obvious lie is that readers through the years have believed Moses and have claimed that he has some sort of speech impediment. How many sermons have you heard (or preached?) that have spoken of the power of YHWH to use even the speech-impaired Moses to do the divine work? There is nothing wrong with Moses' speaking skills; he simply does not want to go to Egypt. And neither is anything wrong with Jeremiah's tongue; he just does not wish to do the thing YHWH has called him to do.
I was even more naïve as I trudged off to seminary, not having any sort of clue just what I was getting myself into. I took Hebrew because it looked funny (that was the real reason!) and the call of God became much louder. I just knew I wanted to teach that stuff (I had always wanted to be a teacher anyway), so I studied it like mad, along with the cognate languages needed to do a Ph.D. in the material, and gained that degree in 1975. But I found myself a pastor anyway, despite my desire to teach and my glittering Ph.D. (becoming increasingly tarnished, I felt).