Fourth Sunday after Epiphany Lectionary Reflection
February 3, 2013
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.” Jeremiah 1:9-10
There aren’t too many people I know who like to have words put in their mouths. Most of us like to formulate our own thoughts and in their speaking give them flesh, bones, and spirit. Some folks, of course, like to hear themselves speak a little too much, but still there is value in the act of speaking and in the holy gift of language and word. One of my favorite authors and teachers, Brenda Ueland, penned these words: “Everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say.”
Granted, Ueland was not speaking of evangelism or preaching or teaching in a faith community, but the principles are equally as apt for modern followers of the Way. By the very nature of our creation we are talented, unique, and original. God doesn’t make junk; we aren’t created for the seconds bin, even though we all bear the scratches and dents of life in this broken world. The key is identifying, nurturing, and owning these gifts for the benefit of the beloved community, and allowing God to put words in our mouth.
For the past two weeks Paul has spoken passionately to the fractured folk in the Corinthian church about their giftedness–both individually and also corporately as those gifts are knit together into the body of Christ. We are not cookie-cutter Christians. Each one of us brings talents, skills, and experiences to our local faith communities that add spice, color, and flavor to the mix. Whether we are encouraged to use our gifts and add them to the community’s culture and expression of faith is another question. I fear all too often there is pressure to conform to a model Christian identity, whether that identity is a product of community expectations or of our own insecurity.
This week Paul hammers home his “more excellent way” of what it means to live in community, the way and culture of love. Love is the icing on our gifts. Love is the blanket that covers our imperfections. Love is the glue that holds our communities together to be witnesses to the gospel. And love should also open our mouths and loosen our tongues to proclaim God’s praise, to speak against injustice, and to tell others what God is doing. But there’s the rub. We’re back to not finding it particularly palatable to have words put in our mouth or to be encouraged to speak words that might offend, alienate, or make us appear “crazy.”
Look at this week’s gospel lesson. Jesus was just lauded as the hometown boy made good last week, and now the same crowd is ready to run him out of town for challenging their assumptions, their way of being and doing, and for speaking a prophetic word of truth. Ouch! Even though Jesus reminds his followers in Matthew 10:19-20 that they will be given the words to speak under persecution, and even though God touches Jeremiah’s lips and puts his words in Jeremiah’s mouth and appoints him to speak, I’m not sure we see these words as applicable to us today.
What words has God put in your mouth? Do you believe that the Spirit will provide you with the right words and intercede for you in prayer when you have no words (Romans 8:26)? Do you feel empowered to be a prophetic voice for your time and in your context? And I’m not speaking only to ordained or commissioned church leaders; I’m talking about the priesthood of all believers here. Bearing witness to the gospel and sharing the faith is not reserved for the likes of the faithful Christians we commemorate throughout the church year. From the moment we are named and claimed in Baptism God has been in the process of putting words in our mouth, of forming us for discipleship. In fact, the appointed lesson Old Testament lesson (Jeremiah 1:4-10), God consecrates and appoints Jeremiah to be a prophet to the nations before even forming him in the womb.
This is one reason it is so important for us to gather in community. It’s in the activities and nurture of the beloved community that we train to speak the words God puts in each of us, to live as faithful folk, and to bear a prophetic witness and word to a hurting world. Remember Brenda Ueland’s words? Well, let me paraphrase them for a faith context: We all have something important to say, we are uniquely gifted to do that, and we are in the process of being equipped to share our gifts with others.
Nobody promises that those with whom we speak will like our words; this isn’t a popularity contest. But we must speak on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves. We must speak against injustice. We must proclaim the love, mercy, and saving grace of Jesus that we experience. Otherwise, we may just have to eat those words, and they were not designed to be swallowed. So speak those words, dear friends. Just spit ‘em out. Don’t wait for the perfect moment or until you feel sufficiently educated, prepared, or holy enough. Do it now. Be the wonderful sinner/saint God created you to be. Open your mouth; after all, you already have the words.
The 2010 movie The King’s Speech depicted the true story of Britain’s King George VI, who learned to conquer his speech impediment with the help of a controversial speech therapist. Remind worshipers that we, too, have speech impediments that keep us from proclaiming the good news and speaking with prophetic voices. We may not stammer, but we may find ourselves tongue-tied for a variety of reasons. We gather as a community for “speech lessons,” for training to help us gain the confidence to share the words that God has given us. If you have time, consider having congregation members either pair up or gather in small groups to practice sharing what they cherish about Jesus, their worshiping community, and their faith life. Conclude by singing the hymn “Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ.”
What does it mean to be a prophet today? Talk about Jeremiah and how God called him to be a prophet by “touching” his lips and giving him words. Invite youth to identify modern prophets and make sure to have a list of your own, preferably with photos or a PowerPoint. Why is it so tough to be a prophet? Invite the youth to explore how they can use the words and experiences God has given them to be prophets in the world.
Cut out large paper hearts. On each one write one of the 15 attributes of love Paul speaks about in 1 Corinthians 13: Love is patient, Love is kind, Love is not envious, Love is not boastful, Love is not arrogant, Love is not rude. Love isn’t selfish (does not insist on its own way), Love is not irritable, Love is not resentful, Love doesn’t rejoice in wrongdoing, Love rejoices in truth, Love bears all things, Love believes all things, Love hopes all things, and Love endures all things.
Give each child one or more of the hearts to hold up, depending on how many children are present. Hang some twine between two points in the sanctuary. Invite the children to help you hang the attributes of love from the twine with clothespins.
Tell them that these attributes show us what love looks like in community. Remind them that when Christians all “hang together” in community we have a lot of love to share and go around. Leave the hearts hanging somewhere prominent and invite congregation members to bring in photos to hang on the line, too. If you have a church directory, you can either cut up an extra one or make copies of the photos (don’t violate copyright laws, however). Alternately, have a few people take Polaroid or digital photos to print and hang on your congregation’s line of love.