My middle son, Dane, is playing football this year for the Bixby Blue second grade football team.
It’s his first year playing and there’s a lot to learn. Weighing in at about 47 pounds soaking wet, Dane is playing the guard position on both the offensive and defensive lines. Isn’t that the cutest lineman you’ve ever seen? At practice one evening, I was sitting with several other parents as we watched our boys grind it out on the field. One of the football moms leans over to me as her son lined up in the fullback position in practice. “He doesn’t usually run the ball,” she says, “Coach just puts him there in short yardage situations. He’s not the fastest and can’t really dodge the tacklers, but he’s tough and can press through the middle to get the first down.” The fullback on the football team doesn’t get much glory; not a lot of t.v. time and generally little experience or desire to mess with celebration dances. There’s work to be done. And they do it. Most of the time they are out in front of the running backs to block defenders, making a hole through the defense so the glory back can score the touchdowns and do the dances. When they do carry the ball, fullbacks generally do the hard work of picking up the short yardage needed for a first down, becoming a pillar of strength in the trenches. They are the player given small-victories-duty on any given play.
The prophet Jeremiah was the fullback of Team Prophet. God had work for him to do and when it was go time, he was going to do it. Some people write better than they live; others live better than they write. “Jeremiah, writing or living, was the same Jeremiah. This is important to know because Jeremiah is the prophet of choice for many when we find ourselves having to live through difficult times.” We live in some disruptive times. Jeremiah’s life spanned one of the most troubled periods of time in Hebrew history. The fall of Jerusalem. The Babylonian exile. Everything that could go wrong pretty much did. Jeremiah found himself right in the middle of it all. But he stuck it out, “praying and preaching, suffering and striving, writing and believing. He lived through crushing storms of hostility and furies of biter doubt. Every muscle in his body was stretched to the limit by fatigue; every thought in his mind was subjected to questioning; every feeling in his heart was put through fires of ridicule.” It was not an easy go for Jeremiah. Thank God he was a short yardage prophet for the grind was grueling.
Everyone gets their start somewhere and that’s where we find our scripture text this morning: Jeremiah’s start. Jeremiah is a PK if you well… a priest’s kid… coming from a line of priests. God speaks to Jeremiah with a different path for his life. “Prophet to the nations, my man… that’s what I have in mind for you.” As we all often do, Jeremiah protests initially. “You’ve got to be kidding me, Master. I don’t know anything. I’m just a boy.” The word “boy” makes us think of a 2nd grade football player perhaps, but the original word used more likely refers to a late teen to early 20-something. Some scholars have said that what Jeremiah was trying to say was, “I’m just immature…”. He’s playing Pokémon Go and a text shows up on his phone: “Hey, it’s me. You know, the Lord. Time to drop some prophecy.” We all know the “I’m just a…” line all too well. “I’m just a simple kid from the block.” “I’m just a soccer mom.” “I’m just a retiree trying to stay retired.” “I’m just a middle-aged man, caught in a middle-aged crisis, trying to be unaffected by everyone else’s problems. Surely you’re not suggesting I’m going to be some whacko prophet.” God says, “Don’t give me your ‘I’m just a’ nonsense and don’t call me Shirley. I’ll guide you through it all.”
God anoints Jeremiah’s mouth with words to speak and gives him purpose with work to do. God says his job will be to pull up and tear down, take apart, scrap, and start over – building and planting. Whew… that is tiring, hard work to consider. And circumstances surrounding his effort only complicate the matter. Eugene Petersen asks these pointed questions about Jeremiah’s context but I wonder if they don’t speak into our context just the same. “What happens when everything you believe in and live by is smashed to bits by circumstances? Sometimes the reversals of what we expect from God come to us as individuals, other times as entire communities. When it happens, does catastrophe work to re-form our lives to conform to who God actually is and not the way we imagined or wished him to be? Does it lead to an abandonment of God? Or, worse, does it trigger a stubborn grasping to an old collapsed system of belief, holding on for dear life to an illusion?”
There’s a lot of tension in America today. The political tension in the air could be cut with a knife. People from all sides are projecting ‘worst-case-scenario’ ideas that add to the fear. In the middle of it all, tension finds our city in deeper ways as Terence Crutcher was shot and killed a week ago, Friday. Personally, I hold the multi-faceted pain of it all. I can stand and lift the two most prominent names from our local news: Terence Crutcher and Betty Shelby and name them as children of God. We hurt for our city. Jeremiah wept for his city. I see Jesus weeping over our city as he did Jerusalem because he knows of the pain present and the hard work to be done to reconcile a fractured people. I sat with a white man this week who served as a missionary in Africa for fifteen years. While there, he and his wife adopted two African sons. They live in Austin, Texas now and the man said matter-of-factly, “I tell my sons, ‘the standard is higher for you than everyone else.’ It’s not fair but it’s reality.” I heard from a cop this week who said, “It’s tragic – nobody says it isn’t – but we can’t possibly know everything and scapegoating any one person isn’t going to fix anything.”
If Facebook is any indication, you have some feelings about this too. I saw a post from TPD officer Popsey Floyd who grew up in North Tulsa, played football at TU, and has stayed on the Northside to serve as a policeman in the community that raised him. He said that everyone needs to feel heard and that’s what he’s there for. And, he added, “If you want to see progress, TPD is hiring, come be a part of the solution.” It wasn’t sarcastic or flippant – just a sense of “This is going to take all of us.”
The most personally helpful communication I saw on Facebook was shared by a handful of high school classmates of mine. It was sort of surreal as they spoke of my current community but as the voices of people from the community that raised me. Two different worlds of my life all of a sudden in the same place. Class of ’97! Hey, remember the 1900’s? The main exchange between these classmates of mine were two black friends who live and work near the area I grew up and a white friend who is a Missouri Highway Patrol Trooper. They didn’t pull punches and spoke their heart but they weren’t accusing each other of anything and actually offered a lot of respect for each other – even using those words, “I hold great respect for you!” both ways. It never seemed like they were on two different sides of anything – just brothers who played kick ball on the playground, football for the Macon Tigers, and now were adult-ing in today’s society trying to make sense of the world and make it better. Why can they do this together? Because of relationship. Relationship matters. And relationships only come through investment.
We only build walls when we start scapegoating and pointing fingers and lashing out at people with whom we have zero relationship. I know some of you hold enough of that emotion that it’s hard not to boil over – and there needs to be space to release those feelings too but armchair complaining and “you need to’s” aren’t the way to go. Todd Adams, a friend of mine and one who some of you helped raise in church camp as a Tulsa kid at Camp Christian, wrote his first word as President of our denomination’s Pension Fund. He quoted Jeff Bezos – founder and CEO of Amazon.com – who said, “What we need to do is always lean into the future; when the world changes around you and when it changes against you – what used to be a tailwind is now a headwind – you have to lean into that and figure out what to do because complaining isn’t a strategy.”
Todd was using it in the context of the changing economy and how the Pension Fund is moving forward but I think it speaks into our community today all the same. God’s asking the question of us that he did of Jeremiah: “What do you see?” “Oh God,” he must of thought as he looked all around him. “I don’t know.” And what does Jeremiah say, “I see a stick.” God must have done that slow acknowledgement we offer to kids when we ask them something serious and all they can think of is to tell you, “My grandma has six toes on one foot.” True story. “A stick? Okay. Good,” God replies to Jeremiah. “Good eyes, kid. That means, um, I’m sticking with you all the way. What else do you see?” Jeremiah says, “I see a boiling pot spilling over.” “Bingo!” God says. “Tough things ahead and my judgment will be upon the people.”
Nobody enjoys that reality, I suppose. Jeremiah’s no different I would guess. But God says, “Get dressed to work.” Many of the older versions say, “Gird up your loins!” which is just funny to say. But the idea is that this isn’t going to be easy and you’re going to be uncomfortable and you’re going to get dirty. Hayes would say, “Dad, put on your mow-the-lawn clothes.” I wear the same shirt and shorts every time I mow the yard – they’re dirty and torn and smell like lawn so I stick with it. Time to get to work! And it may be fullback-carrying-short-yardage-small-victory work for a while – maybe for a long while, but we’ve got to do it somehow, someway. It’s why Kevin, as our Community Pastor, put together some tangible ways to gird up our spirits and get engaged in the community. When tough things happen in our lives and in our communities, we need to hear God asking us, “What do you see?” Then we need to ask God in return, “What do you need me to do?” How does my faith inform my role in the healing that is needed?
This past week held the anniversary of his death – tragic car accident. He was one of the so called ragamuffin Christians – which was an endearing term, not derogatory. He wrote songs – some deeply authentic and moving songs. Sad, in some ways, as most people know him best for his song “Awesome God” which starts with the line, “When he rolls up his sleeves he ain’t just puttin’ on the ritz.” Not sure that would be Rich’s favorite tune — the song he’d be most known for — but I can sing it by heart since my childhood. I have a friend who is essentially non-Christian (she would give Jesus the nod like I do to Ramen Noodles qualifying as pasta when necessary) but she doesn’t practice or express faith in any tangible way. Even so, she could name this one Christian song and would be the first to say, “I love that song about God puttin’ on the ritz.” Sorry, Rich.
Rich had Quaker roots, stemming from a very peace-driven people. You could hear his opposition to violence in songs with lyrics like: “Why do the nations rage? Why do they plot and scheme? The bullets can’t stop the prayers we pray in the name of the Prince of Peace.” Rich made statements about Christianity not being about building an absolutely secure little niche in the world, separate from those different than us, but being about loving like Jesus who loved those different when others refused. He spoke in a chapel service at Wheaton College once saying, “You’re into the ‘born-again’ thing and that’s great. Jesus said that to a man named Nicodemus. ‘To enter the Kingdom of God, you need to be born again.’ But if you tell me that I’ve got to be born again, I can tell you that you need to sell everything you have and give it to the poor because Jesus said that to one guy too.” He added, “But I guess that’s why God invented highlighters… so we can highlight the parts we like.”
There’s another old story about Rich… back around Nineteen hundred and Eighty-Nine… about him and a buddy riding on a train. “As they travelled, they shared about their deepest struggles, pouring out their souls, including some of the not-so-pretty stuff. As they arrived at the station, one of the passengers in front of them recognized Rich, and said, “Excuse me, are you Rich Mullins?” Rich said that he immediately began to rehearse in his mind all of the things she might have heard him say… and he had to decide whether or not he was Rich Mullins. And of course, he looked her in the face, smiling, and said, “Yes… I am Rich Mullins.” He owned his stuff, and he gave us permission to own ours too.” Is there a greater gift than authenticity?
People will often claim that the church is full of hypocrites. Rich would often say, “No we aren’t full of hypocrites… we always have room for more.” Our Christian reality is not one of perfection – it’s about falling in love with a perfect God and hopefully becoming more like the one we love. Week after week, but especially today, we have to ask ourselves, “Am I committed to that?”
Shane Claiborne is a writer and Jesus follower who interacted and was greatly shaped by Rich. He wrote much of this about Rich this week including this: “Rich Mullins is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known. Interesting because he was honest — not perfect. He made you feel like Jesus was right beside you — part of the band, telling stories around the fire, laughing with you at the bar. He made you feel like you could own your darkness and be honest with your doubts. He knew that inside each of us there is a sinner and a saint at war, and on good days the saint prevails, and on bad days… Jesus loves sinners. He is one of the most important people in the history of modern evangelicalism, a ragamuffin that our children and our grandchildren need to know about.” Shane danced with his wife on their wedding day to Rich’s song called, “If I Stand.” It goes like this: “So if I stand, let me stand on the promise that You will pull me through… And if I can’t let me fall on the grace that first brought me to You.”
I don’t stand here confident of much today… but… I am confident in Jesus Christ… his love; his grace… for me, for Terence, for Betty, for Rich, for Shane and his wife; for my son and the 2nd grade Bixby Blue football team; for those paralyzed in fear and those whose mouths are touched by God to speak; for the newly fatherless and for those long ago adopted from the mission field; for you… for you. When I’m paralyzed by conflict or hurt or matters of justice, I need to gird up my loins with Jeremiah and go for the small victory of short yardage gains. That won’t solve it all but it is the necessary work of forging ahead like a fullback of faith… making a way, creating a path for others to find a way through and lining up to do it all over again.
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 This quote and the others linked to Peterson are from his exegetical commentary on the context of the book of Jeremiah. This can be found in The Message’s introduction to Jeremiah. NavPress. 2002.