“Only” - August 25, 2019

Jeremiah 1:4-8

            A very sad poem came up on my facebook feed this week.  It said,

“I’m very ugly

So don’t try to convince me that

I am a very beautiful person

Because at the end of the day

I hate myself in every single way

And I’m not going to lie to myself by saying

There is beauty inside of me that matters

So rest assured that I will remind myself

That I am a worthless, terrible person

And nothing you say will make me believe

I still deserve love

Because no matter what

I am not good enough to be loved

And I am in no position to believe that

Beauty does exist within me

Because whenever I look in the mirror I always think

Am I as ugly as people say?”[1]

Some people have to fight very hard not to fall into that mindset.  A lot of people slip into it, and then spend a lot of time denying it.  I cannot help but think of Michael Jackson, and the ridiculous and pitiable lengths he went to change his appearance across his lifetime.  Why?  He must have internalized ideas about what someone in his position “should” look like – their hairstyle, skin color, the shape of their nose, the contours of their cheeks.  It’s hard not to say that he was trying to look more European.  If he was, it didn’t work.  In the end, you are who you are, and everyone is made in the image of God, which has nothing to do with physical appearance at all.  When you try to be someone you are not, you make things harder on yourself and, in fact, you may start getting in the way of God’s idea of how things should be.

 

            The prophet Jeremiah wrote about his sense of God’s calling, which came to him early in life.  Some people have to wait years and decades.  Not him.  As he tells it,

“Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying,

‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,

and before you were born I consecrated you;

I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’

Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God!  Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’” [Jeremiah 1:4-6]

 It’s that word “only” that gets in the way. 

            How could the child Samuel have heard God call out to him in the middle of the night while the experienced and capable priest Eli was asleep just in the next room?  Two times, when God called out, “Samuel!  Samuel!”  Samuel responded by waking Eli up and saying, “What do you want?”  Eli, however, was experienced and he was capable, so he knew to tell the boy that it might just be the Lord speaking to him and he should listen.

            Samuel, when he was older, and had followed the path of a prophet of God for many years, was sent to find someone who would become king after Saul had turned out to be a poor choice.  He was sent to the sons of Jesse, and they were introduced to him one by one, from the oldest to the youngest.  The Lord kept saying to him, “Not this one, not that one.”  Finally, he said to Jesse, “Is this everybody?” and Jesse said, “There is one more, but he’s just a kid.  He’s out somewhere watching our sheep.”  Samuel wouldn’t eat or rest till he had met him, too.  The young shepherd’s name was David, and God said, “This is the one.”

            “Only.”  A lot would never have happened if God took that word as seriously as we do.

            When Jeremiah used it, this is what God said to him:

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;

for you shall go to all to whom I send you,

and you shall speak whatever I command you.

Do not be afraid of them,

for I am with you to deliver you,’

says the Lord.”  [Jeremiah 1:7-8]

 

Because he took the Lord at his word, Jeremiah was off and running.  He would become the major prophet of God for his time and place, not only when he was a child but well into his late years.

             Today we pay special attention to our students, and to their teachers.  They both find themselves in the odd mix of people that we call the educational system.  It includes folks from all kinds of religious background, and many with no experience of God (at least, as they see it).  They may be asked to explain themselves and their beliefs, and think,

 “‘Ah, Lord God!  Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only…’”

 They will be with people who are gifted at sports, art, music, math, and languages; but no one who excels at all of those, and most of whom drop back in at least a couple of those.  In the midst of that, too, they have to know that they are never only.  It isn’t those things that determine who they are.  What matters is what God says about them.

“‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,

and before you were born I consecrated you.’”

 Both teachers and students will have to deal with competing demands on their time and energy.  Some of them will face bureaucrats and some of them will be troubled by bullies.  In short, they will be faced with all the complexities of our society.  They have to figure out how to make their way through all of that with integrity.  There will be days that they jump out of bed, eager to get to school, and days that they want to hide their heads under a pillow and pretend it isn’t happening. 

They are also going to be reminded of possible dangers and asked to develop responses to dangerous situations that will probably never arise for them.  They will be taught to fear.  Last week there was an unfortunate incident, that thankfully ended well, when a SWAT team closed off the area around Lincoln Ave. and Hall St., not far from Barkley.  Our building, along with St. John’s and the YMCA, is a designated place of refuge in case of emergency on the school campus down the street from us.  They hold active shooter drills the way that, when I was a kid, we held nuclear fallout drills.  They are the ones who will have to say to the people around them that, no matter what, God offers a safety that no one else ever could.

“‘Do not be afraid of them,

for I am with you to deliver you,’

says the Lord.”

And it is so easy to think, in the midst of all that they face, that there is nothing they can do to make it better, because at the same time we and they constantly hear from advertisers and social media that we have to fit every ideal and have every new gadget and meet every random and constantly-changing criterion of perfection to be worthwhile.  No, you don’t.  God loves you.  That tells you enough right there.  Whose standards could be higher that God’s?  But, once again, let me say this: “God loves you.”  That is a beauty that nothing can touch.

God doesn’t see things the way that the world does.  God doesn’t do things the way that the world tells us to do them.  The world says to look at the appearance.  God looks at the heart.  The world says to get and hold onto all that you can.  God says to share all that you are able.  The world says to get even.  God says to forgive.  The world says to look down on people.  God says to leave the judgment to him. 

That poem that I started this sermon with, let me read it to you again, not from top to bottom, but from bottom to top, in that backward sort of way that God tells us to see things, and to live.

“Am I as ugly as people say?

Because whenever I look in the mirror I always think

Beauty does exist within me

And I am in no position to believe that

I am not good enough to be loved

Because no matter what

I still deserve love

And nothing you say will make me believe

That I am a worthless, terrible person

So rest assured that I will remind myself

There is beauty inside of me that matters

And I’m not going to lie to myself by saying

I hate myself in every single way

Because at the end of the day

I am a very beautiful person

So don’t try to convince me that

I’m very ugly.”

 There is nothing only about anyone made in God’s image, sought out by Jesus, and offered all the blessings of the Holy Spirit.


[1] Attributed to Abdullah Shoaib at https://www.facebook.com/Thepopularist/posts/2281597288752901