Only a... (begins at 24:41)

August 25, 2019

Series: August 2019

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Jeremiah 1:4-10

4Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, 5"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." 6Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." 7But 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, 8Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD." 9Then 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. 10See, 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."  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.

Only a…

          Over the summer, I had a chance to reunite with some of my high school friends; it happened to be friends with whom I was in a band, apropos for today’s service.  It’s amazing when you’re back together with people from an earlier time in your life, how you can feel yourself slipping back into old roles, or at least old ways of seeing yourself.  This happens a lot when families get together.  Have you noticed this?  Old pecking orders or insecurities come up, even though everyone has had a full life of their own.  I realized as we got together and have remained in touch that I’m not at all sure all those years other people perceived me as I thought they did.  So much of it was in my own head.  We craft such strong stories about who we are.  Think of the suffering we could spare ourselves if we learned to be a little careful about what we accept as gospel about ourselves.  Think of the limits we self-impose.

          Our two passages today are about limitations people have internalized.  It’s not to say the limits aren’t real, nor that they are peoples’ fault.  In Luke, a woman has been stricken for 18 years before Jesus heals her (Lk. 13:12).  Jesus doesn’t discount her condition or tell her it’s all in her head.  To the contrary it’s so real to him that he can’t wait another day to heal her, breaking the law and doing so on the Sabbath.  In a world where peoples’ conditions were believed to be a result of their character or that of their ancestors, imagine what she must have come to believe about herself, her worth, and therefore what she could do or who she could be.

          In our other reading we hear Jeremiah recount his own call story.  He’s ready to deny what God has in store for him from the moment he hears of it.  Told he is to be a prophet, Jeremiah responds, “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy!”  Now, never trust someone who is eager to be a prophet.  At the same time, isn’t it amazing how quickly we can rush to try and turn off the valve that controls God’s flow?

          There is such power in these, “I am only a…” stories.  In one of the graduate programs I was in, there was a student whose GRE scores were at least a hundred or two points too low to be admitted and yet they graduated first in the program.  You can guess how I knew, and I share that uncomfortably, but it illustrates a point.  No matter how far in school I went, on the first day of class I always thought I didn’t belong, might not be able to hang.  I have four graduate degrees!  The power of, “I’m only a …”

          I listen to a radio/podcast regularly.  It’s ostensibly about sports, but in truth it’s about everything and kind of about nothing.  One day all the co-hosts were talking about their high school experiences – how many classes did they have a day, how long were the passing periods, what did they keep in their locker and how often did they visit their locker during the day.  Then a-matter-of-factly, the one said, “Well they locked our lockers.” 

          “What?” came the reply from all the other hosts.

          “Yeah, they put sheet metal over the lockers.  They assumed we had weapons and drugs.  It was before we had metal detectors,” he added with little charge to his voice.  He is the only African American on the show.  Now, I know very little else about the context, and yes there’s a danger in generalizing, but think of what it must do to the psyche of a young boy or girl to have such a visible story placed before you every day by your school – you can’t be trusted not to have drugs or weapons.  “You can’t have lockers because you’re only a bunch of ____” (and you can fill in the word there.  I won’t say it).

How many of us, if we took a moment, could finish the phrase, “for I am only a ____” with something we’ve internalized about ourselves, our family, or some group to which we belong?  How many times have we been presented with a challenge or an opportunity or even a gift or compliment and our instant response is, “Oh no, I am only a ____”  We shroud our own self-doubt, even self-loathing, in false humility.  In a culture that celebrates the bombastic, what we so often fail to recognize the deep insecurity underneath even the most arrogant. 

These kinds of narratives surround us.  They wall us in.  They separate us from one another and what we become.  It’s like construction tape, only it marks off areas that will not be under construction, that will be kept from growing and becoming.  For every false or limiting narrative, a line is drawn, a limit imposed.  I have already demonstrated two lines for you, what others might we identify that we might release.  No one has to share, because it’s vulnerable, but might some of you be ready to share.  If you choose not to share, I ask that you hold this space in prayer that it might be safe enough for others to speak.  How have you in ways aloud or in the recesses of your heart completed the phrase, “I am only a _____”?  We’ll mark a line for each one shared.

Examples (attach stories):




-one person

(lace caution tape around the room)

 We are surrounded by the messages we’ve been told about ourselves on the tape that surrounds us, the tape that says, “Caution,” which we can read to say, “Caution, you can’t do that.  You’re not worthy of this.  You don’t deserve that.  That’s not for you.”  I don’t mean to sound like a cheap self-help speaker. This isn’t about maximizing your job success, though it could encompass that.  It’s not about telling people they can do whatever they want.  It’s simply to help people start to reopen the valve and restore the flow from God, like restoring a dried riverbed too long damned.

I’m not going to leave this here too long, but for a bit.  Pay attention to how it feels, this simple caution tape representing the stories.  Are you beginning to realize their power, how they keep you in place?  These lines, these stories. purport to know you, to know who you are and what you are capable of.  They haven’t met the prophet Jeremiah, or more accurately, the mysterious One, that knew Jeremiah and knows us.  It is the relationship with, the connection to, and the presence of this One that supersedes and precedes any and every other.  We call this one God because we can find no suitable name.  If we cultivate our ability to listen, we hear it say with every one of our breaths, “don’t say, ‘I am only a_____.’  I knew you first.  I know the name you had before you were given a name.  Your identity is unshakable in me.”

          I was tempted to do this with tissue paper streamers, and have you break through them, but that would be to give them too much power, allowing them to summon rage from within.  I’d rather us take a more Zen approach…literally.  The Buddhist Leo Babauta writes a blog called “Zen Habits.” [1] In an entry entitled “Becoming Aware of the Stories We Tell Ourselves,” he describes a simple process to liberation from these non-solid binds.  The process is about becoming more aware of the stories, which leads to an ability to let go of the grip they have on us:

“The first thing you can do is regard it as a dream. That doesn’t mean it’s false, it just means it’s not so solid. It’s something you’re playing out in your head, just like a dream, with very real emotional results. See it as a dream, not solid, and see if you can come out of the dream to the physical reality of the world around you in this moment. What sensations are happening right now, as opposed to in this dream?

The next thing you can do is not act on the story. Even if you’re caught up in it, that doesn’t mean you have to lash out at someone, or run away to distraction or comfort. Just sit with the story, notice how it’s making you feel, notice the physical sensations in your body. Notice that you’re caught up. But don’t act, just stay with your awareness.

There is another way of being: where you don’t cling to the stories but instead drop below them, and are just aware of the moment as it is, without interpretations, judgements, preconceptions. Stories will still come up, but you can notice them and not get caught up. Or if you do get caught up, notice that and don’t hold so tightly to it, coming back to the present moment.”[2]

Now, on the count of three.  Let’s drop the lines.  1-2-3.  That’s it.  They’re powerless.  You don’t have to tear them apart because they are not solid.

Go easy on yourself because this is hard to do.  Treat it as a practice to which you can return. 

God’s refrain to Jeremiah, like Jesus’s words to the woman are spoken also to us reminding us who we are by first showing us who we are not.  You can go back as far as you’d like to reclaim who you are, as you realize little by little there is no more need to utter


[2] Ibid