Sermon preached at the Thursday evening community Eucharist at the School of Theology at Sewanee. Text: Jeremiah 7:23-28
"So you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you. You shall call them, but they will not answer you." (Jeremiah 7:27)
Does this sound like a job you'd be willing to sign up for? God tells Jeremiah to proclaim his words to the people of Israel, but tells him ahead of time that the people aren't going to listen to him. Apparently God didn't get the memo about effective ways to motivate your employees. Imagine what a business meeting would be like if the president of a company took this approach: "Well, we've done the research, and all indicators say that the market is going to reject our product," she'd say to her employees. "We basically have a zero chance of making a profit. Now, your job is to devote your life to producing this product."
People aren't usually too willing to go along with a plan they know is going to fail. We might try something that seems unlikely to succeed simply because we never know what the results will be; since we're not omniscient, there is always a chance the statistics and projections are wrong. But coming from God, there is no uncertainty in the claim: "I'm telling you up front, Jeremiah -- these people aren't going to listen to you." Gee thanks, God. I bet Jeremiah could have done without some of that omniscience there.
So what's the point? Why does God call Jeremiah to speak words of warning to the people and call them to repentance if he knows they're not going to listen anyway? Or, to make it a bit more personal, why are we called to proclaim the Gospel when we know many will reject it?
I think the simple answer is, we do it because it's who we are. We do it because we can't not do it. We do it because God calls us to do it.
Working for the kingdom of God is not always a results-oriented kind of endeavor, as much as we would like for it to be. We speak of "sowing seeds" that we may never see sprout as a metaphor that helps us make our peace with the fact that we may not see any visible results or effects of our ministry in the world around us. We "keep on keepin' on," because we believe in faith that those seeds will someday sprout, even if it's not for many, many years… maybe not even until Jesus comes back.
But sometimes, we can feel a little like Jeremiah must have felt when given the instructions he was given in today's reading: like we've been given an impossible task that we know is going to fail, that no matter what we say and how much we say it, the people will just not hear.
Some of us may have felt that way when the Sewanee Chautauquans blog surfaced last spring, with all of its anti-black and anti-gay rhetoric. People who work with those living in poverty and homelessness may feel that way when the same people never quite seem to be able to get their lives together, or when people with whom they've developed long-term relationships betray them. My friends in the interfaith movement and I felt that way when we saw the video released last month of a protest outside a Muslim charity fundraiser event in California, where violently angry women and men shouted insults at the Muslim men, women, and children who arrived for the fundraising dinner.
In situations like these, we may find ourselves asking, "What's the point?" Why am I giving my life to anti-racism training when there continue to be hate crime shootings every year in my neighborhood? Why am I feeding these people when they're only taking advantage of the system? Why have I spent the past ten years in interfaith education and advocacy only to watch a crowd of people waving American flags yelling, "Go home! We don't want you here, you terrorists!" to Muslim children under the age of of ten, whose only existence in this world has been in the context of post-9/11 fear of Muslims?
Perhaps at times like these we can remember the prophet Jeremiah. "So you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you. You shall call them, but they will not answer you." And yet, you are still to speak -- to speak the words of faith and love. You are still to call -- to call the people to repentance and reconciliation with their neighbor -- even when you know they will not listen. You do this for the same reason that a mother would throw herself in front of a train to try to protect her child, even if she knew that that action would kill them both. You do it because it's who you are. You do it because you can't not do it. You do it because God calls you to do it, regardless of the results.
There's a famous set of "paradoxical commandments," often attributed to Mother Teresa, but actually written by Kent Keith, a speaker and advocate of servant leadership, that I think say it best. Keith wrote them while a sophomore in college, and they advocate a stubborn faithfulness to love against all odds that I, for one, think is what the church should be all about. Here are a few of them:
People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Give the world the best you have and you'll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.
I return to these "paradoxical commandments" whenever I feel discouraged about the seeming impossibility of the tasks to which God calls me. Yes, people may continue to be hurtful and angry and bitter and use one another and kill one another -- and they may do those things in the name of God. But we are to continue to preach peace and to speak truth to power and to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God -- anyway.
After all, God loved us "anyway" -- despite our shortcomings, despite our sinfulness, despite our rebellion against the love of God. Contemporary Christian artist Nichole Nordeman captures this in her song, aptly titled "Anyway," in which she compares the Christian life to the process of restoring an old painting:
A gallery of paintings new and paintings old
I guess it's no surprise that I'm no Michaelangelo...
But you called me beautiful
When you saw my shame
And you placed me on the wall
"So you shall speak the words of God to them, but they will not listen to you. You shall call them, but they will not answer you." Speak anyway.