The Book of Jeremiah is a complicated document, and there are many scholarly debates about its history and its voices, its purpose and its people. What we read at its beginning, though, is a classic call story.
“Here,” says God, touching Jeremiah, “I am giving you my words, my Spirit, my authority.”
So Jeremiah begins his career as a prophet, and like most prophets, he is loved and he is hated, and he is hated the most by those nations and kingdoms (and their kings) over whom he has been appointed “to pluck and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” For his pains, Jeremiah is placed in the stocks, imprisoned, rejected and despised. In fact, at one point in the story, one of those kings over whom Jeremiah has been given authority by God takes his prophetic scroll and deliberately and defiantly destroys it, having it read to him by a voice dripping with irony, and after each section is done cutting it away and throwing it into the fire (ch 36). One commentary notes drily that “Jeremiah has the reputation of unremitting doom.”
But Jeremiah never gives up the faith that he has been given. He cannot keep from the call that he has heeded. God’s words have been placed within him and they burn to be set free. He calls the people to account, to recognize that they, too, are known to God, their actions and the imaginations of their hearts are open books. He urges them to do what is right and return to God, because when they do, God will always receive them with joy, and with mercy, and with love.
Jeremiah’s is not a happy story. Jeremiah is one of those characters that gives the lie to the popular reassurances: if it is God’s will, all will go well; if you are truly inspired, no one will be able to oppose you.
It gives the lie to the popular assurances that if God is for us, no one can stand against us. That lie is too often used as an excuse, or a rationale for backing off, backing down, when a prophetic voice is needed, stronger words, the telling of hard truth to power.
Think of the modern martyrs, of Mahatma Gandhi, assassinated for attempting to bring peace between warring factions of his own country; of Martin Luther King, Jr, killed for calling out the injustices of racism in this country. Or, getting back to basics, think of Jesus, plotted against from the early days of his ministry by political and religious leaders whose authority he undermined by daring to highlight the plight of the helpless and the hypocrisy of the high and mighty.
What do you think? Sixty-five years after Gandhi was killed, the ideal of non-violence is still embattled in this country by wrangling over stand-your-ground laws and fights about just where the right to own lethal weaponry begins and ends; internationally by the apparently tortured diplomatic difficulty of controlling and calling out chemical weapons attacks and cruelty among the nations. Does that mean that Gandhi’s inspiration was wrong?
Fifty years after the March on Washington, the media is reporting on a Pew Research finding that a majority of white folks, who look like me, think that enough has been done, that the war on racial inequality has been won, while more black folks seem to believe otherwise and insist that there is more work to be done. Who owns the truth?
At the very least, Jeremiah teaches us that we cannot base our judgement of what is good and true and necessary simply on polite or popular opinion. Nelson Mandela’s first arrest, coming under the “Suppression of Communism Act,” would have been considered quite legal and reasonable back in 1952; it took some while for his prophetic voice to be heard above the chatter. When Gene Robinson accepted the call of God and of his diocese to serve as a bishop in the Episcopal Church, he received hate mail and death threats, and some predicted the demise of the church and of civilization; but have you heard him preach the Gospel?
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus goes into a synagogue, to take part in the prayer of his community. He is faithful in his observance, and he is obedient to his tradition. He sees a woman in need of healing, and he reaches out and touches her, and she is made strong. The leader of the synagogue berates her – notice, he berates the woman, not Jesus – for coming to worship on the Sabbath and getting healed! He is not angry because Jesus has done work on the Sabbath, because he has done something beautiful and wonderful. You can tell it from the story, because he doesn’t yell at Jesus, and besides, how would that even make sense? And anyway, Jesus shields the woman from his words and shrugs off his diatribe with disdain, and no one argues back.
No, the leader of the synagogue is lashing out at the weakest one there because he is afraid. He is afraid that he has just seen God at work, and heaven knows what trouble that will bring, God knows what God will ask of him, if God truly is at work in the world, in his little world, in his small corner of the world. The leader of the synagogue doesn’t really think the woman should continue to suffer. He is simply afraid of the burden that her freedom has just placed upon him. He has read Jeremiah and the prophets, and he knows that God is not shy of calling God’s people to account. His frightened but loud dissenting voice is hardly evidence that Jesus was wrong.
For most of us, following God’s call to love God, and to love our neighbours, will not lead to imprisonment, rejection, public humiliation, assassination, much less crucifixion, thank God. It does take continual attention to what is right, and good, and true. It does take discernment, prayer, listening to the call of God upon our hearts. It might quite often be necessary to filter out the background noise of popular dissent, or polite disapproval, or powerful politicking. It might take courage to do the next right thing, to take the next positive step towards loving God, loving our neighbours as ourselves.
Fifty years from Washington, two thousand years from the cross, more than three thousand years from the Exodus out of Egypt, we still have a long way to go, and part of that is because, for most of us, it’s all done by baby steps. Just occasionally, someone comes along who is ready to take a running jump; but for most of us, most of time, it’s baby steps: learning simply to notice the next crooked woman to walk through the door needing a touch of compassion; learning to speak the next true word with love; building our courage to take the next step towards loving our neighbour as ourselves.
Here’s what Jeremiah’s call story and its aftermath leaves us: knowing and doing the will of God isn’t always easy. It might sometimes be scary. But God has known us, has known you, from eternity. God says, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you … Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” And Jesus says, “You are set free.” The Lord reached out and touched Jeremiah’s mouth, and placed words in it, and Jeremiah proclaimed the word of the Lord to the people of God. And Jesus reached out and laid hands on the woman and she was healed and lifted up her voice, praising God; free at last.
The king who burnt the scroll, the leader who lashed out in anger, they were afraid of the evidence of God’s power in their lives. They were afraid that loving God and their neighbour too much would leave too little love left over for themselves.
But as Jeremiah says later, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded… There is hope for your future,’ says the Lord” (Jer. 31:16-17). So anger is answered with mercy, and the flow of fear is stopped up with faithfulness, and Jesus stands among the congregation, and has compassion upon the people that he finds there.
 The Oxford Bible Commentary, John Barton and John Muddiman, eds (Oxford University Press, 2001), 490