A sermon preached at the memorial service for the Rev. Dr. Ian Victor, held at the Presbyterian College. Based on Jeremiah 1:1-10.
God says to Jeremiah: “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
The prophetic vocation, it seems, includes an element of destruction or deconstruction. With his words, the prophet tears down things that are not worthy of God or God’s people. With her words the prophet gets underneath our carefully crafted theologies, brings to light our hidden assumptions, and confronts our blatant hypocrisies – the prophet does so in order to defeat and deflate those things in our lives and communities that are contrary to our identity as the children of God.
But the prophetic vocation also includes an element of construction – or upbuilding, to use a good Kierkegaardian phrase. With his words the prophet commands and invites ways of living that are appropriate to those who belong to the God of covenant and creation. With her words the prophet leads God’s people toward those forms of life that express the love of God and exhibit conformity to the law of God.
As Bruggemann puts it, the prophet’s vocation is a vocation to shatter worlds and a vocation to build worlds. With poetry, with sermons, with denunciations, with praise, with public words of prayer, with promises – with his words, the prophet shatters worlds and builds a new world. The prophet insists that God’s people see what is false and ugly and broken – that they open their eyes in astonished faith at what is true and beautiful and holy.
To this double vocation of shattering and building worlds, Jeremiah is called.
To this double vocation deconstruction and construction, Jeremiah is appointed.
To this work of leading God’s people away from a form of life and toward a form of life, Jeremiah is consecrated.
We should hesitate to set up a direct parallel between God’s call to Jeremiah and the call to pastoral ministry – to do so is a fraught exercise, notwithstanding our many attempts to be prophetic. Yet even as it is a fraught exercise, we know that the call to pastoral ministry is a call of service in a gospel that similarly shatters worlds and builds a world. The gospel of the crucified and risen one is a gospel that tears down pride and envy and selfishness – it tears down systems of injustice – it tears down our illusions of power and control and self-assurance. It isn’t going too far to say that the gospel shatters worlds that are contrary to the way of the risen Jesus. And on the other hand, of course, in him a new world is born, a new world has come to life, a new world is being constructed. He is building a world of service and humility – a world of generosity and forgiveness – a world of reconciliation – a world of holiness, goodness and truth.
All of us, not only those called to pastoral ministry – but also those called to service in health care, in education, in manufacturing, in consulting, in finance, in the military – we are all called into the service of a gospel and of a Lord who shatters worlds and is building a new world. To this limited extent at least, then, we may set up a parallel between the call of Jeremiah and the call to pastoral ministry.
I want to get at this question of call today because a significant feature of my brief relationship with Ian Victor was the encouragement he gave to me in my calling – both as minister of a particular congregation and to ministry more generally. Whether it was in comments offered following a service at Kensington, or in words spoken following a Presbytery meeting, or in the context of discussion in my own home, Ian’s words were invariably positive and constructive and above all encouraging. It may seem like an odd way to capture my experience in relation to Ian, but somehow by the combination of his words and his laughter and his experience and simply his presence, somehow by that unique combination, Ian became a reminder to me that ministry is possible. On the face of it, that may not sound like much. But perhaps we all know that there are many days when just such a reminder is, as you might say, huge. Ministry is possible. It can be done.
Yes, the calling of the risen Jesus is real.
Yes, the Spirit of God is present to you with gifts and graces.
Yes, the God of covenant and creation is at work in the world even through you.
It goes without saying that not everyone in the church is able to offer us this kind of assurance, as Ian did. Not everyone we meet can extend this encouragement with such disarming grace, as Ian did. Not everyone we meet in the Body of Christ can look beyond his or her own needs or preoccupations to become such a source of life and energy for us, as Ian did. I know that my own offering of such encouragement to others is a too-rare feature of my own life.
This word of encouragement – this selfless and gracious word of faith – becomes particularly important when we confront the challenges of ministry. Of course the challenges we face pale in comparison to the rough ride Jeremiah got in his own prophetic service among God’s people. But that doesn’t mean our challenges are not real.
We are called to the service of a Lord who shatters worlds and is building the kingdom of God – yet we have just a few hours a week to try and stem the tide of the atheism and that is a vigorous and defining feature of our culture.
We offer words and prayers pointing women and men and kids to the hopeful life of Jesus in our world, yet those words seems so quickly drowned out by the banal cacophony of social media feeds.
We scramble to shore up the institutional life of the church, all the while wondering whether the institution isn’t something that needs shattering, rather than building.
Not only did Ian offer a reminder that ministry is possible in precisely such a context. He offered a reminder that it can be done with a smile on our faces – which in the end is perhaps simply a reminder that the church is Christ’s church – and that the world we serve is the world for which Christ lived and died and rose again. In other words, that it is not our world finally to save or to build, but ours simply to offer gifts in service to the work Jesus is doing. In this there is room for joy, and there is space for laughter, and there is time to lift a pint with friends.
Following on all of this, let me try and say just a couple more things about the encouragement we receive from this text in Jeremiah, following up with these words in verse four: “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.”
How many times haven’t my wife and I shared a story with our kids, or related some past experience, only to have one of them ask: “Where was I when that happened?” Especially when they were younger, when Becky or I began a story “Do you remember when…” Or, “Can you believe it’s been so long since…” – invariably the story would end with one of the kids asking “Where was I when that happened?” And of course the right answer was often that they were nowhere. “Well you weren’t born yet.”
But over time that answer became so dissatisfying to us. There seems something even unfaithful about saying he or she was nowhere. And so another answer was formulated, one that seemed more true to our faith and life in Christ. “Where was I when that happened?” “Well, you were in the mind of God.”
“When we drove all the way to Vancouver Island, you were still in the mind of God.”
“When we met that crazy and wonderful missionary in Senegal, you were still in the mind of God.”
God to Jeremiah: “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.”
The prophet offers us here what one writer refers to as a glorious commonplace of the scriptures. This glorious commonplace is the idea that our being and our living and our calling and our serving have always been in the mind and heart of God. From beyond ancient times, God has held us in his care. From beyond ancient times, God in Christ has equipped us for the service of kingdom. From beyond ancient times God in Christ has blessed us for the life of holy friendship in ministry. From beyond ancient times God in Christ has called us and anointed us and commissioned us for the beautiful and difficult work of the word in the world.
It is so easy to become preoccupied with the challenges of the present moment – to think of the church’s present and future in fundamentally atheistic terms – to feel defeated by the challenges of the present moment – to wonder whether ministry is possible. In such circumstances, oh that this glorious commonplace of scripture would become a glorious commonplace in our hearts and minds: “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.”
Finally, a few words around verse 9: “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’.” In this gesture and in this moment there is such profound intimacy between the God who calls and the one who is called. This vision is not merely a vision of the glorious light-infused being of God, but is a vision that includes the intimacy and physicality also of touch.
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.”
Marc Chagall (“Jeremiah receives the gift of prophecy”)captures something of the intimacy of this encounter between God and prophet in his etching. It is an angel of God that reaches out and places fingers on the lips of the prophet Jeremiah – a gesture that appears to silence, but which in fact gives the gift of speech and confidence on the way to a shattering and building of worlds.
The deeply personal nature of this touch captures the deeply personal nature of both the call and the challenge inherent in the call. To be sustained and encouraged in service, whatever form that services takes, requires a memory not only in heart and mind – not only an intellectual holding of some past call as true – but somehow a memory also in the body – a physical recollection of strength and presence and intimacy that sustains and nourishes for the way. It is not for no reason that we lay hands on as an expression of God’s call and blessing for service in way of the risen Jesus.
In holy friendship and holy laughter, we discover that ministry is possible. By the promise of God’s anointing and calling and equipping from beyond ancient times, we are sustained for service. Through the memory of God’s touch upon our bodies, we answer the call to speak his word again.
Thanks be to God. Amen.