Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
May 12, 2017—Interfaith Baccalaureate Service
Jeremiah 1:4-10 • 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.” But the Lord said to me, “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.” Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
Philippians 4:4–9 • Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.
Qur’an 2:269 • He grants wisdom to whom He pleases; and he to whom wisdom is granted receives indeed a benefit overflowing; but none will grasp the Message but persons of understanding.
3:7 • He it is Who has sent down to you the Book: In it are verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning); they are the foundation of the Book: others are allegorical. But those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is allegorical, seeking discord, and searching for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its hidden meanings except God. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: ‘We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord:’ and none will grasp the Message except persons of understanding.
29:43 • And such are the Parables We set forth for mankind, but only those understand them who have knowledge.
96:1-5 • Read in the name of your Lord who creates —
Creates man from a clinging drop,
Read, and your Lord is most Generous,
Who taught by the pen,
Taught man what he did not know.
So, here we are—gathered in the middle of a time of ceremony. Some of you have had ceremonies already this morning and afternoon. Others of you will have ceremonies later this evening. All of you will have ceremonies at some point this weekend.
And here we are at another ceremony, in which we draw upon the great religious traditions to help us to reflect and discern meaning. We sing songs of celebration and thanksgiving. We pray prayers of invocation and blessing. And we read from sacred texts that speak to the moment. It’s all very… ceremonious.
But was we stop for a moment from the relentless tide of rite and ritual, we begin to hear the words that the traditions speak to us. The Christian tradition reminds us not to be anxious about anything—easier said than done, right?—but to pray to God all of our needs, along with giving thanks. That is sound spritual advice.
The Muslim tradition reminds us of the importance of wisdom and understanding, and the learning that takes place in the person of faith. I have long noted that when it comes to knowledge, no one knows more than a college freshman—if you doubt that, just ask one. Conversely, no one knows less than a college senior. If you doubt that, ask one as well. They’ll tell you that everything that they thought they’d known four years ago is in doubt. And they, paradoxically, after years of learning and growth in knowledge, feel they know less than they used to. This is the knowledge the Qur’an points toward, the wisdom that the philosophers extolled and prophets remind their communities about when they got too full of themselves.
II. THE TEXT
But of all the texts we heard read earlier, there is one that speaks to this occasion in a special way: the text from the Jewish scriptures, from the book of the Prophet Jeremiah.
Part of that appeal, to me, is that this passage was the basis for the first sermon I ever had occasion to preach to the Class of 2017 when they were freshmen. I won’t check to see if anyone here remembers that sermon, or was even present, or if you were present, if you ever came back after that. (For those of you putting on appearances for your parents, I and the other chaplains will promise to act like we know you in the receiving line after the service.)
But another part is that there is something about this passage that captures the emotions of the moment. That many here may be feeling.
There are anxieties that come with finishing a major stage of life and setting off on another one. And even in the midst of all the celebration and parties and ceremonies deep down, many may be feeling that you’re really just not ready for this. Oh, you won’t admit that in public—but lurking around in the back of your mind is this feeling that you’re not as ready as everyone else appears to be. I remember feeling that exact way around my own graduations: Really, they’re sending me out into the world like this? What are they, nuts?
And that’s why the Jeremiah story speaks so well to this. That thought was the same thing going through Jeremiah’s mind when he received the call from God. Jeremiah records that the word of the Lord came to him, saying: “Before I created you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart; I made you a prophet to the nations.”
And Jeremiah’s response: “I don’t know now to speak because I’m only a child.” In short: I’m just a kid, God. I can’t possibly be the one you’re looking for. And let’s be honest, “prophet to the nations” does not sound like an easy task. God isn’t offering Jeremiah an internship or an entry level position in the mail room. He is telling Jeremiah that he is going to be a prophet to the nations. Not just your local neighborhood prophet, walking down the street with a sandwich board. We’re talking Major League Prophet.
And Jeremiah’s response: I’m just a kid. I can’t do that.
Jeremiah may have had a point. Scholars believe that Jeremiah was around 12 to 13 years old when this call happened. And the times into which he was born were not exactly simple.
At that time, the tiny kingdom of Judah was caught between political instability in Syria as the Assyrian Empire teetered on the brink of collapse. The Kingdom of Egypt sought to hold off the rising power in Iraq (or Babylon) by invading Syria. That gambit would fail and the Babylonians would eventually come to oppress Judah, while the Jewish people argued over whether it was enough that God was on their side and whether religion was defined by piety or justice. Eventually this failure of political and religious leadership leads to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the beginning of the Jewish people’s exile in Babylon.
So, let’s recap: at the age of thirteen, Jeremiah receives a call from God to be a prophet to the nations. At the age of 18 he begins this calling against the backdrop of major national religious reform. And it continues with the death in battle of the king, the collapse of a major foreign power, the rise of another foreign power, subjugation under the Babylonians, seige of Jerusalem, capture and destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, the devastation of Judah, and the beginnings of the Babylonian Exile.
I think we have to cut Jeremiah some slack when we read his objections: I’m just a kid. We would feel just as ill-equipped to enter onto that world stage, and many of us now possess degrees in public affairs or international relations.
IV. THE GOD OF THE INEXPERIENCED
But, here’s the thing: Jeremiah was inexperienced. There was no way he was up to the task. Who could be? Even the prophet first in her class at prophet school would not be up to the task of speaking the word of God in the midst of such national and international turmoil. Jeremiah was absolutely right.
But, see, Jeremiah made one mistake. He thought it was about him. He thought it was about his own age and experience. But God quickly brushes that aside:
“Don’t say, ‘I’m only a child.’ Where I send you, you must go; what I tell you, you must say. Don’t be afraid of them, because I’m with you to rescue you.”
Yes, Jeremiah, God says, you are just a child but that’s not a problem. You’ll go where I tell you and say what I tell you to say. And it’ll be okay because I am with you.
That’s the piece we miss so often. It’s really not about us. It’s about the God who accompanies us along the way. Jeremiah was not up to the task of being a prophet to the nations at age 13, or even at age 18, but that was immaterial: God was with him and that was all that he needed.
It would appear, by the way, that God seems to prefer working with people in exactly that circumstance. What made Moses—a man who claims not to have been able to speak well—the great prophet and lawgiver who would lead God’s people out of bondage? What made a shepherd boy like David ready for being Israel’s great king? Or a bunch of fishermen the apostles that would spread their faith around the Ancient Roman world? Or an illiterate businessman the great prophet to bring the message of Islam to Arabia and then to be carried to the world? Throughout the story of faith, we’re constantly seeing God work with people who don’t have the perfect resume. And it seems to work out just fine.
While the task before you is not nearly so grave as being a prophet to the nations in the midst of tremendous geopolitical upheaval, it may be that you’re feeling you’re not up for the task ahead of you. And you might be right. But you would also be mistaken in thinking that that was the end of the conversation.
I remember having a revelation when I turned twenty-five. I realized that I was now as old as my father was when I was born and I didn’t know anything. And then it dawned on me: I bet he didn’t know anything either. I bet my parents were just making it up as they went along. In fact, the older I’ve gotten the more I realized that we’re all just kind of muddling through. We’re all in kind of a “fake it till you make it” situation. There are a lot of us running around suffering from what is called the “impostor syndrome”—the fear that we’re going to be found out, that we’re going to be exposed for the frauds we are.
None of us is really ready for what happens next in our lives. Oh, to be sure we do gain experience as the years go by that helps us to anticipate a little better, but no one is prepared to be a college student until they are one. No one is prepared to be a member of the workforce until they enter it. No one is prepared to be a life partner or a spouse until they are one. No one is prepared to be a parent until they have children. So, if you’re feeling that you’re not quite ready, it’s okay. No one is.
That’s comforting for two reasons. One, you realize that everyone out there who’s talking a big game is probably just as unsure and insecure as you are. Indeed, given the realities of the situation, the projection of expertise is very often a coping mechanism. Very few of us are as aware of our limitations as Jeremiah was. So, we can offer a little grace both to ourselves and to the people who are making us feel inadequate. They probably know better than you realize what you’re feeling.
And second, there is a lot of comfort in knowing that it’s not really about how wonderful we are; it’s about how wonderful the One is who walks beside us in all our journeys. That’s what our traditions of faith have always taught us: it’s not really about our ability.
That’s a tough thing to remember. Especially after four years at a very Type-A campus in a very Type-A city in which our resumes define our self-worth. In which our ability to be expert at something informs our self-understanding of what we’re worth and what we’re capable of. Even if we don’t have to dive right in to the middle of court politics and international relations as Jeremiah did, the challenges that face us can be daunting and make us feel inadequate.
But here’s the thing: you are ready for what comes next.
You’re ready not because of what you know, or because of the number of internships you’ve had, or because of your GPA or your Latin honors, but because of who you are.
The last four years, you have been a part of this community and have been formed within it. You have been through good times and bad. You have been through times of celebration and sorrow. You have witnessed tragedy and pain, you have witnessed injustice and hate. You have stood together in solidarity and hope. You have rededicated yourselves to the very values that sent you out on the college journey in the first place: to human dignity, to compassion, to mercy, to justice.
And in that process, you have begun to discover who you are. And what you have learned is that it is the depth of our willingness to give ourselves for one another, to stand in solidarity, to be open to new ideas, new experiences that helps to define us. It is our drive toward compassion, empathy, and community that shape us more powerfully than any line on a resume ever could.
That process of transformation, that process of self-discovery, of the growth in wisdom and compassion, the relationships that you have had that have helped you to discern meaning, the education and guidance you have received from teachers, staff, and classmates, the love you have experienced in community—some of us might call all of that an encounter with the very heart of God.
And that goes with you. The sense of self, the wisdom, the grace, the compassion, the connection, the love—that all accompanies you on the road ahead. That very “heart of God” never leaves your side.
So, you may, like Jeremiah hear the call and see around you your own Babylons, your own hostile rulers and indifferent priesthoods, and may, like Jeremiah, say, “I can’t do this; I’m just a kid.”
And the response now is the same as it was then: “Do not be afraid; I am with you.”