Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Jeremiah Principle

God calls Jeremiah to be a prophet when he is a just a boy.  God tells him, “Before you were even born, I knew you.”  In other words, “I have been preparing you for this calling for a long, long time.”  Once old enough to assume the role, Jeremiah journeys throughout Israel preaching and teaching.  He speaks out against idolatry, exposes greedy priests, and challenges false prophets.  Not everyone likes to hear unfiltered truth.  The priests in one town conspire to kill Jeremiah and God must intervene to save him.  On another occasion a temple official in Jerusalem has Jeremiah beaten and put in stocks at one of the city’s gates.  Those who pass in and out mock the prophet.  He literally becomes a “laughing stock.” 

In today’s first reading we encounter Jeremiah at a time when he has had enough.  He wants God to bring down retribution on his persecutors.  He wallows in struggles of his calling.  He describes the inner turmoil and conflict it has spawned.  And he lashes out at God who has been like a “deceitful brook”, like “waters that fail.”  God has let him down. 

One commentator says Jeremiah’s pain can be characterized as an “unsettled ache”, as “a war within.”  Jeremiah takes on a calling he thinks will bring him great joy, and initially it does.  At first, when he finds God’s words he “eats” them and they “delight” his heart.  But then reality sets in.  Jeremiah learns firsthand life is not always easy and resistance (or worse) is not uncommon.  In today’s reading we find him at a point where he is just done with all of it.

Years ago I knew a parishioner who managed a family-owned care facility for the elderly.  Once a month I conducted a worship service for the residents and often stopped by her office afterwards for a chat.  She loved her job and the staff and the residents.  And she loved the family she worked for because they shared her values of compassion, concern, and treating people with dignity.  At some point the family sold the facility to a corporation and that is when everything changed for the parishioner.  She came under more and more pressure to make the bottom line look better by minimizing expenses in order to maximize profits.  She was forced to reduce the staff and to make other cuts which diminished the quality of care given to the residents.  With each monthly visit I sensed her unhappiness growing.  She had not lost her love for the residents or the staff.  In fact, her love for them gave birth to a deepening, darkening inner ache that grew with every decision she was forced to make by a heartless corporate entity.  Eventually, she had to quit.       

Whatever your vocation, I hope you understand it to be a calling and I hope it brings you joy and great delight.  I suspect there are aspects about what you do that take a toll on you.  As an example, teaching is a wonderful profession.  There is something thrilling about creating a learning environment to facilitate discovery and growth.  But the job is not this simple and straightforward.  I have never known a teacher who did not struggle with an unsettled inner ache birthed by the incredible time demands of the job, difficult parents, meddlesome administrators, budget cuts, poor pay, and/or unmotivated students. 

No vocation is immune to burnout.  We are eager at the beginning, but at some point learn we must endure.  What initially is a delight can become a thing we dread.  At first we are fired up, but eventually get fed up.  This morning we learn we can name this “the Jeremiah Principle.”  As with Jeremiah, it may be the result of na├»ve expectations encountering the real world.  Or, as was the case of the parishioner managing the care facility, it may come about because conditions change in unforeseen and disagreeable ways.  No matter what the cause, the result is the same.  It creates an inner, unsettled ache.

Going all the way back to God’s command to Adam to till the earth and tend to creation, there has always been a strong connection between the work of our hands and the condition of our heart.  Work is many things, one of which is spiritual.  If you like what you do, who you do it with, and who you do it for, chances are good you are a peace with yourself.  If you don’t like what you do, who you do it with, and/or who you do it for, then most likely you know exactly what the phrase unsettled ache feels like.

Tomorrow is Labor Day.  Far more than seeing it as a day off from work, the church invites us to ponder the work we do and why we do it.  Listen to the opening part of the collect for Labor Day:

Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good…

The prayer asserts we are interconnected.  Because we cannot live apart from the contributions of others, we are called to think of our labor as being an offering for the welfare of all people.  For some this will be a radical shift.  It will move you from thinking about what you are getting out of the work you are doing to focusing on what your work is doing to benefit others.

I can tell you one person who needs to shift his mindset in this way – Jeremiah.  God responds to his lament and says,

If you utter what is precious,
and not what is worthless,
you shall serve as my mouth.

Jeremiah’s work is to speak in such a way that God is speaking through him.  What an incredible job!  And what a blessing it can be to those who hear him speak.  God’s words through him may guide, they may encourage, they may heal, they may correct, they may reprove.  They are God’s words and they are words people need to hear, even if they don’t want to listen.  Speaking is Jeremiah’s contribution to the common good.  It is the purpose of his labor.

But Jeremiah has forgotten this and made himself the focus of his work.  “I did what God called me to do and look what happened to me.”  Jeremiah has yet to realize he cannot control how other people will receive his labor and he cannot control what they will do with it.  All he can control is what he says.  He can control if his words are precious or worthless.  If he does this God makes three promises to him:

I will make you to this people
a fortified wall of bronze;
  they will fight against you
but they shall not prevail over you,
for I am with you
to save you and deliver you.

First, God promises to make Jeremiah strong.  Second, God promises Jeremiah will meet strong resistance.  And finally, God promises to be with Jeremiah to save and deliver him.  Jeremiah must learn to concentrate on his contribution to the common good and stop focusing on what it costs him to do this.

God’s words sink in very deep.  Jeremiah picks himself up, dusts himself off, and gets back to the job of being a prophet.  His career will span the rule of five different kings.  By the time he is old he will witness the complete destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army.  He will be remembered as the weeping prophet.  But he has been faithful to his job, speaking the words people need to hear, even if they reject them and persecute him for speaking them.

The parishioner who quit her job never came to church very often and for some time I lost track of her.  One day I went to visit a person who recently entered a care facility I had not visited before and who did I meet managing it?  The parishioner.  She looked as if the weight of the world had been removed from her shoulders.  This facility was family-owned and managed on values she could support.  Unlike Jeremiah, she did not need a change of perspective.  All she needed to contribute to the common good was a change in scenery. 

This morning we hear Jesus say,

“If you want to be my follower you must deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow me.  If you want to save your life you will lose it, and if you lose your life for me you will find it.”

This is the great paradox of the Christian living and it runs counter to everything we think we know about life.  Learning how to apply this principle to every aspect of our life is a lifelong work in progress.  Through Jeremiah we are encouraged to consider how it applies to the work we do.  Are you deep in the throes of the Jeremiah Principle, tied up in knots on account of the work you do?  Perhaps, like Jeremiah, you need to reexamine your expectations and refocus your motivation.  Perhaps, like the woman managing the care facility, you need to acknowledge you can no longer be at the place you are working and need a fresh start.  No matter what your circumstances on Labor Day, I hope you will ponder Jesus’ promise, “If you lose your life you will find it.”